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Grieving mother wants answers about VA's handling of email

By TONY COOK | The Indianapolis Star (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 13, 2015

When Sheri Russell learned about an internal email at Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center that mocked veteran suicides, her knees got weak and she couldn't speak.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks," she said. "I can't even find the words...It brings a lot of pain and hurt as a mom."

That's because her son, Shane Miles, a 21-year-old Army private from Martinsville, committed suicide in September, less than a month before he was scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan.

Athletic and good with his hands, Miles had played on the soccer and basketball teams at Tabernacle Christian School. He had a lot of friends and was something of a class clown.

"He just liked to crack jokes and make people laugh," his mother said. "He was just a good kid."

In the Army, he excelled at physical training and specialized in utility equipment repairs. He once tore apart two broken generators that his supervisor had written off and got them working again, his mother said.

But as his first deployment grew near, "there was anxiety there," she said.

He was stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky on Sept. 22 when he suddenly took his own life.

His family continues to recover from the shock.

"My son's death is only five months old," Russell said. "My emotions are still raw and it's still fresh to me."

Russell's grief turned to anger on Monday, when news broke that a manager at the Indianapolis VA had distributed an email mocking veteran suicides. The email quickly found its way to national news outlets and drew condemnation from veterans groups and members of Congress.

But for Russell, it was deeply personal.

"It makes me irate," she said. "That shows absolutely no respect for the families who have lost their loved ones to suicide. I took very personal offense to it."

The Dec. 14 email, first disclosed in The Indianapolis Star, includes photographs of a toy Christmas elf posing as one of the hospital's patients.

In one photo, the elf pleads for anxiety medication with a sticky note that reads, "Out of XANAX -- please help!"

In another photo, the elf hangs itself from a strand of Christmas lights.

"Caught in the act of suicidal behavior (trying to hang himself from an electrical cord)," a caption reads.

"That hits very close to home for me," Russell said, "because my son hung himself."

Now, Russell wants to see the VA supervisor responsible for the email fired. And she wants answers about why hospital administrators — who learned about the email months ago — were so slow to act.

"I want to know what they did and why did it take two months," she said.

The hospital's director, Tom Mattice, placed the email's sender, Robin Paul, on paid administrative leave Tuesday pending the outcome of an investigation.

Paul managed the hospital's transitional clinic for returning veterans, which provides mental health and readjustment services.

She has apologized for the email in a prepared statement. So, too, have local and national VA officials.

But those apologies ring hollow for Russell.

"For her to mock it or make fun of it and then say she didn't mean to offend anyone -- then what was she trying to do?" she said.

"There's no compassion, there's no sensitivity. She doesn't deserve her job. To work with veterans you have to have compassion."

Russell, who is a deputy at Morgan County Superior Court, said as a public employee she expects to be held to a high standard. The VA should have the same expectation, she said.

"It's very disappointing to me they aren't taking it more seriously," she said.

Paul did not return phone calls from The Star.

Mattice, the hospital's director, declined an interview request. When asked why the VA didn't take stronger action two months ago, hospital spokeswoman Julie Webb simply said, "I do not know."

A national VA spokeswoman would not say when agency leaders in Washington, D.C., learned about the email.

Russell is not alone in her quest for answers. Scores of veterans have contacted The Star since the story broke, and while a few have dismissed the email as gallows humor, many more have expressed disgust, called for Paul's termination and questioned why it took so long for the VA to take strong action.

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is among those who want an explanation.

"The Medical Center should explain how they handled the situation previous to today and what changes they have made to better serve our veterans moving forward," Donnelly said in a statement to The Star. "We must get this right because our service members and veterans have earned our respect and gratitude."

The nation is facing an epedemic of veteran suicides with an average of 22 each day. Congress has recently passed two pieces of legislation intended to help prevent soldier and veteran suicides. Donnelly introduced a new package of bills earlier this week intended to improve mental health services at the VA and the Department of Defense.

The email at Roudebush is the latest setback for the troubled VA.

The agency is still reeling from whistleblower accusations last year that dozens of veterans died before getting care at a VA Medical Center in Phoenix. That scandal led to then-Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation and a report that found widespread manipulation of patient wait time data at VA facilities across the country.

And last month, the VA's new secretary, Robert McDonald, had to apologize for misstating that he served in the military's special forces.

President Barack Obama and McDonald plan to visit Phoenix's VA hospital Friday for an update on reforms at that facility. Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he hopes the trip will also serve as a reminder that the VA needs to take this latest embarrassment seriously.

"We trust that Secretary McDonald will get to the bottom of this issue as swiftly as possible and hold people accountable. And we look forward to hearing from him about his plan of action regarding the matter," Rieckoff said. "We also hope the President will address the issue with veterans when he meets with them later this week in Phoenix."

In the meantime, Russell said the email that initially left her speechless has now prompted her to speak out on behalf of other military families who have lost loved ones to suicide.

"Somebody has to be a voice for them," she said. "In one sense, (the email) made me weak and in another sense, it gave me strength."

Call Star reporter Tony Cook at (317) 444-6081. Follow him on Twitter: @indystartony.

(c)2015 The Indianapolis Star
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