Indianapolis VA hospital apologizes for email mocking suicides

INDIANAPOLIS -- An Indianapolis veterans hospital has apologized after a manager sent an email picturing a toy Christmas elf posing as a patient who pleads for tranquilizers and hangs himself with an electrical cord.

The email, obtained by The Indianapolis Star, was sent by Robin Paul, a licensed social worker who manages the transitional clinic for returning veterans at the Roudebush Veteran Affairs Medical Center. The clinic provides mental health and other services for those returning from deployment.

The hospital's public affairs department emailed The Star a statement on Paul's behalf.

"I would like to sincerely apologize for the email message and I take full responsibility for this poor judgment," Paul said. "I have put my heart and soul into my work with Veterans for many years. I hold all Veterans and military personnel in the highest regard and am deeply remorseful for any hurt this may have caused."

Roudebush spokeswoman Julie Webb said the Dec. 18 email was "totally inappropriate" and did not reflect the hospital's commitment to veterans.

"We apologize to our veterans and take suicide and mental health treatment seriously, striving to provide the highest quality," she said.

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The email comes as the nation fights an increasing number of suicides among veterans that has prompted action from Congress and President Barack Obama.

"It is a slap in the face to our recent and past veterans suffering from mental health issues every single day," said Ken Hylton, commander of the Indiana Department of the American Legion. "These men and women went to war and do not deserve this type of ridicule. This is a disgusting display of mockery. This is supposedly someone who is caring for our veterans, and we in the Indiana American Legion are disgusted."

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he hopes the email is an isolated incident and that Paul has been "dealt with aggressively, because we're in the middle of a suicide problem."

The VA estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the U.S. Congress approved a bill last month that will help the VA study new suicide prevention strategies.

Obama in December signed the Sexton Act, which requires annual mental health assessments for all service members and requires the Pentagon to evaluate existing military mental health practices. It is named for Jacob Sexton, an Indiana National Guardsman from Farmland who shot himself in the head at a Muncie movie theater while home on a 15-day leave from Afghanistan.

Gregg Keesling of Indianapolis, whose 25-year-old son, Chancellor, shot himself in Baghdad in 2009, two weeks into his second tour, called the email "wrong," but stopped short of calling for terminations.

"It's very inappropriate, but I can understand it - making light of something awful because it's so awful," he said. "I think it's a way of coping with things."

Webb said the issue was "administratively addressed" but declined to elaborate, citing employee confidentiality. Paul continues to manage the clinic.