A horrific scene unfolded Tuesday in the waiting room of an Austin, Texas, Veterans Affairs clinic when a veteran reportedly shot himself to death in front of hundreds of witnesses.
Despite the commotion, many in the building remained unaware of what had occurred for some time after the shooting, KWTX News 10 reported.
One group therapy class even continued on for almost an hour after the shot was fired.
“All of a sudden, over the intercom, they have this statement about everyone must clear the building including staff, so it was a little surprising,” veteran Ken Walker told News 10.
Once vacant, the hospital was locked down for an investigation.
Reddit user Diane_Kirkendall shared a photo reportedly taken in the waiting room in the wake of the suicide.
Like most VA medical centers — and non-VA centers — the Austin, Texas, clinic has not installed metal detectors, relying instead on randomized bag searches.
A 2018 Government Accountability Office report determined the VA had not been adhering to the same security standards required of federal buildings, potentially leaving staff and patients vulnerable to risk.
In 2015, Veterans Affairs psychologist Timothy Fjordbak, 63, was shot and killed by Jerry Serrato, 48, at a clinic in El Paso, Texas.
Serrato then took his own life.
Between October 2017 and November 2018, 19 veterans died by suicide on the grounds of VA medical facilities in what some believe to be acts of protesting inadequate treatment by the country they served.
In December, Marine Col. Jim Turner, 55, put his service uniform on, drove to the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs, and shot himself outside the medical center, leaving a note next to his body.
“I bet if you look at the 22 suicides a day you will see VA screwed up in 90 percent,” it read.
Less than a week ago, two veterans from Georgia killed themselves in separate incidents outside VA hospitals.
“For military veterans, access to weapons and familiarity with weapons makes it too easy,” Jack Swope, a licensed professional counselor with Austin’s Samaritan Center, told NBC Austin.
Availability of viable medical options remains a titanic hindrance vets face as well, Swope claimed.
“There’s a scheduling problem. Part of it is a matter of accessibility, getting there, and frankly part of it is a matter of finances and costs.”
Swope’s statements, however, don’t accurately reflect the recent progress the VA has made in terms of accessibility, according to one VA representative who spoke with Military Times.
“Health care facilities now provide same-day urgent services in primary and mental health for veterans who need them at no cost,” said Veterans Affairs Press Secretary Curt Cashour.
“VA is seeing more patients than ever before, more quickly than ever before and studies show VA now compares favorably to the private sector for access and quality of care — and in many cases exceeds it.”
Cashour added that the VA completed 623,000 more internal appointments in FY18 than FY17, while seeing “positive outcomes” of its suicide prevention efforts.
In spite of those efforts, the veteran suicide rate has climbed.
“Suicide prevention is VA’s highest clinical priority,” the VA said in a statement following the incidents in Georgia.
Despite these proclamations, the VA came under fire following a December GAO report that revealed only $57,000 of the VA’s $6.2 million suicide prevention media budget — or, less than 1 percent — had actually been used.
Recent government reports show that 530 veterans in Texas died by suicide in 2016 alone. That number equates to a suicidal likelihood that is double that of the general population.
If you are in crisis, representatives from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text 838255 or chat with a representative at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat. VA health care facilities offer same-day urgent primary and mental health services.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.