The case outraged veterans groups, who said the government should not prosecute those seeking help. They feared that Duvall’s prosecution could have a chilling effect on distressed veterans at a time when they are committing suicide at a rate of 18 per day.
And they were flabbergasted that the man in charge of the office pursuing the charges against Duvall was Timothy Heaphy, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, who is the son-in-law of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, an advocate for helping troubled veterans rather punishing them.
Prosecutors initially argued that they had every right to charge Duvall, who admitted to being armed with a gun when he called the hotline from the campus of Virginia Tech. But during a hearing Monday, the government changed course and recommended that Duvall be admitted to counseling overseen by a new Veterans Treatment Court. If completed, the charges, which carried a prison sentence of up to 40 years, would be dropped.
After the hearing, Duvall, a graduate of Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge, said he was thankful for the chance to continue putting his life back together. But the veteran, who enlisted in the Navy in 1991 and deployed to the Persian Gulf and off the coast of Somalia before being honorably discharged in 1995, said he was “confused as to why they came after me.” He assumed that the VA hotline was confidential, as advertised.
He also said he was concerned about “the veterans that are coming back [from Iraq and Afghanistan]. I know it’s going to be rough for them.”
Duvall, homeless and unemployed, had been wandering the streets for a week before his call to the crisis hotline, according to court documents. He was despondent and reeling, he said, from the death of his father.
In his backpack, he carried a final note to his family, a letter confirming his eligibility to be buried in the Southwest Virginia Veterans Cemetery and a homemade gun fashioned from a pipe. While on the campus of Virginia Tech, where he had worked previously as a part-time cook, he called the VA’s suicide hotline shortly after midnight and told the counselor he was going to kill himself.
A police officer who arrived a short time later took Duvall, a divorced father of two, to a psychiatric facility, where he was treated for depression.
But a week later he was charged by state authorities with carrying a concealed weapon without a license. Eventually, those charges were dismissed so that the U.S. Attorney’s Office could prosecute the case in federal court.