When I saw the news bulletins about a hostage crisis at The Pathway Home, I immediately flashed back to the graduation there five years ago.
An Army veteran from Sacramento wept as he thanked the staff and his six fellow graduates. “I think this place saved my life,” he said, as most of the audience wiped away tears, too. I was doing a series of columns about veterans, and it was one of the most emotional and uplifting events I had seen in a long time.
The Pathway Home is one of the nation’s most respected programs for combat veterans who are fighting post-traumatic stress disorder and other demons. It gets the tough cases, and has treated 450 vets since opening in 2008.
Maybe if Albert Wong had played by the rules, he could have spoken at his own graduation.
Instead on Friday, he went to the sprawling grounds of the state-run Veterans Home of California in Yountville, slipped into a going-away party at The Pathway Home and took three women hostage. After a nearly eight-hour standoff, officers found all four shot to death. Besides Wong, the dead were Christine Loeber, 48, the program’s executive director; Jennifer Golick, 42, its clinical director; and Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba, 32, a clinical psychologist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
We may never fully know what possessed Wong, 36, of Sacramento, an Army vet who served in Afghanistan in 2011-12 and who was kicked out of the residential program, reportedly after threatening one of the women. There’s an investigation, of course: Were warning signs missed? Should there have been armed security? All that will eventually sort itself out.
One thing we do know: Too many veterans are not receiving the care they need and deserve for PTSD and other mental health issues.
There are about 20 million veterans in America, including 3 million who served since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. California is home to more veterans than any other state – nearly 1.8 million, including more than 234,000 post-9/11 vets.
In a commentary for CNN, Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, wrote that counselors, social workers and others who work with troubled vets are on the front lines of a war that puts them in danger daily.
“They dedicated their lives to helping veterans,” he wrote of the three women. “And they gave their lives helping veterans. And if we are to truly respect their sacrifice, we must help others understand the magnitude of it.”
“If you’re the President, it’s long past time for you to issue a national call to action – to call for reinforcements to serve as mental health workers in this time of war,” Rieckhoff added.
President Donald Trump didn’t do that. He tweeted, as he always does: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic situation in Yountville and mourn the loss of three incredible women who cared for our Veterans.”
Nice words, but empty. He had a prime opportunity to pledge significant help for veterans when he spoke to service members Tuesday at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on his first trip to California as president. He punted; instead, he bragged about all the new planes and helicopters in his huge military build-up and even mused about a new military force in outer space.
Even more telling: Late Friday, the Pentagon released a planning memo on Trump’s military parade – a colossal waste of money to puff up his ego. It could cost $10 million or more to hold the event on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, in Washington, D.C., so that Trump can review the troops from a stand near the Capitol.
If Trump truly wanted to honor veterans, the money for the parade would be far better spent on mental health care.
That’s the big picture. In the small community of The Pathway Home, staff and leaders are trying to come to terms with what happened. Its board of directors announced Wednesday that the home is closing indefinitely and that the six veterans now in the program will receive services from the VA, Napa County and others. A memorial service is scheduled for Monday.
There’s a possibility that Pathway Home may never reopen. That would be a shame. There would be one less place for troubled veterans to find their way out of the darkness.