As attention this week is focused on security and how a man was able to scale the White House fence and get inside, equally important questions remain concerning the care this war veteran received, or whether he even reached out for help.
Omar J. Gonzalez of Copperas Cove, Texas appeared in federal court Monday on charges of entering a restricted building or grounds while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon. Police say he had a small pocket knife with him. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
In the wake of the incident, White House security and the Secret Service have come under fire, and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said that it would hold a hearing next week. A similar effort should be placed on how the system failed to track Gonzalez or get him help that he obviously needed.
Gonzalez served in the Army from 1997 until his discharge in 2003. He served again from 2005 until December 2012, when he retired due to disability. Relatives have told the Associated Press that the Iraq war veteran suffered from post-traumatic stress and needed treatment.
Long waiting periods and a lack of available treatment for returning war veterans has been an issue for years. In many cases it is difficult to identify those in need of help unless they seek it themselves. It isn't clear from news reports whether Gonzalez tried to get help, but his disability retirement and the fact he had served in a war zone speak for themselves and should have placed him high on the VA's radar.
Another opportunity to intevene came in July this year, when Virginia State Police stopped Gonzalez. According to the Associated Press, police and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seized two semi-automatic weapons, three handguns and multiple ammunition magazines from Gonzalez, who was later released on bail. He also had a map of the D.C. area with the White House circled.
And last month, Gonzalez was stopped along the south fence of the White House with a hatchet, according to the Associated Press, but he was not arrested.
For Gonzalez, all the familiar signs were there of a veteran in need of help, yet the help did not come, despite concerns of friends and family and multiple run-ins with law enforcement over the past few months. Every day across the country, veterans continue to struggle with war-related mental and physical health issues. In most cases, the pain they are feeling is focused inward. In a report issued last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs said 22 veterans take their own lives every day. Yet help for many of them remains out of reach.
Security at the White House is an important issue that deserves close scrutiny in the wake of this incident. But equally important is how so many different warning signs were ignored in a case that, as suggested by the evidence that is coming to light now, should never have gotten this far, and might not have had Gonzalez gotten more help from the VA, or if he had been identified by law enforcement or others who he came in contact with as someone in need of help.