Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin took exception to describing the Texas church shooter as a veteran, because he was given a bad conduct discharge for domestic violence crimes in the ranks.
“In my opinion, I do not consider him a veteran,” Shulkin said at a National Press Club event on Monday, one day after the Texas tragedy. “That would give him much more respect than he deserves. He is a criminal.”
“He was convicted … and does not deserve to have the same title as the men and women who served this country honorably,” he said.
U.S. Air Force officials said that the suspected shooter — 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley — joined service in 2010 and served in logistics readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
But four years later, he was given a court-martial for a domestic violence accusation, confined for 12 months and kicked out of the military with a reduced rank and a bad conduct discharge.
On Sunday, Kelley entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, with several firearms and began shooting. At least 26 people were killed and 20 more injured. Kelley was later found dead a few miles from the scene.
Local law enforcement officials say the shooting may have been motivated by arguments with his ex-wife’s family. But Kelley’s military experience has been emphasized in numerous news reports, much to the chagrin of veterans groups.
Kelley’s bad conduct discharge made him ineligible for a host of veterans benefits, including VA health care. It’s unclear whether his military conviction made him ineligible under federal law to purchase firearms.
Shulkin has made outreach to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges a point of emphasis in recent months. But he said those efforts are meant to better identify veterans who may have undiagnosed mental health problems that contribute to lesser offenses — drug or alcohol abuse, for example — and not give a pass to more serious crimes.
“Those with bad conduct discharges have violated the law, have violated our morals and ethics and I do not believe deserve services and benefits,” he said. “VA will not be providing them. This is not a person who has ever been treated in the VA system and would not be eligible.”
He also called Kelley “an evil person” but said it was impossible to draw any connection between the murders and his military experience.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.