Before he was tackled last week inside the north doors of the White House, before he jumped the fence and touched off a debate over the competency of the Secret Service – before any of that – Omar Gonzalez was a casualty of war.
Wounded in Iraq, suffering from post-traumatic stress and depression, he had been living in his truck almost since his 2012 medical retirement from the U.S. Army.
Relatives told the Los Angeles Times that the once-lighthearted man – who, as a child in California and Puerto Rico, had dreamed of becoming a soldier – was a haunted wraith by the time he came home from his deployment, unable to sleep, obsessed with guns and convinced that unseen enemies were trying to kill him.
It took more than a year, his relatives said, before the Department of Veterans Affairs began compensating the 42-year-old soldier for his medical conditions. By that time, they said, he was firmly in the grip of one of the American military’s fastest-growing conditions.
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Sprinting across the White House lawn, ignoring the warnings of guards and oblivious to the fact that he was in a sniper’s crosshairs, he believed he had to tell the president that “the atmosphere was collapsing,” according to court papers.
His intent, he told the Secret Service, was to raise an alarm about a gathering crisis.
Post-traumatic stress in the military has reached stunning proportions. According to some studies, it afflicts as many as one in five veterans who were deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Characterized by crippling flashbacks, mood swings, insomnia and other mental health problems, it can last a lifetime, according to a comprehensive VA study released in August. And that lifetime is often shortened: Veterans with PTSD were twice as likely as those without it to die by retirement age.
As Gonzalez was arraigned yesterday, the Beltway debate was over the Secret Service’s questionable performance. Not only did he dash 70 yards across the lawn without capture, but it turns out he had already been questioned last month after agents caught him lurking around the White House fence with a hatchet tucked into the waistband of his pants.
Nor was that the first hint that he might have been up to something potentially lethal: In July, prosecutors said, he led Virginia state troopers on a 20-mile chase before they arrested him with a carload of guns and ammunition. They confiscated his weapons but could not jail him for long. He faces a charge of having a sawed-off shotgun but was free on bond.
Certainly, his case calls for a thorough look at security at the White House. Why, for instance, did the Secret Service not unleash dogs that are specially trained to intercept intruders?
One crucial point, however, should not be forgotten: Seeing that the running man didn’t appear to be carrying a bomb, the officers followed protocol and didn’t shoot him. In this, they were indisputably right.
Longer term, however, the shortcomings of the Secret Service pale in comparison to the deeper issues of how we fail mentally ill people, particularly our traumatized veterans. Yes, President Barack Obama has promised to do better by them. And yes, in the wake of scandals over delays in treatment, the VA has worked overtime to redeem itself.
But we need to do better. At last count, more than 650,000 veterans were on disability with PTSD. They are casualties of an epidemic that is heading straight for us, full-tilt.