At the lowest moment of his life, Sean Duvall pulled out his cellphone just past midnight and called a suicide hotline. He was carrying 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.
He told the Department of Veterans Affairs counselor who answered the phone that June night that he was going to kill himself.
Stay put, the counselor urged him, after learning that Duvall had wandered onto the campus of Virginia Tech. Help is on the way.
Soon a police officer arrived and took the 45-year-old homeless Persian Gulf War veteran to a psychiatric facility, where he was treated for depression and began feeling better.
Had it ended at that, Duvall’s story would be evidence that the efforts to save veterans — who take their lives at a rate of 18 a day — are having an impact. But what happened next has infuriated veterans groups and mental health advocates.
Shortly after Duvall was released from the hospital, he found himself in trouble again. This time with the law.
Duvall, who served in the Navy and lives outside Roanoke, now faces four federal counts related to manufacturing and possessing the homemade gun, which could lead to a 40-year prison sentence.
Veterans groups and mental health advocates warn that Duvall’s prosecution could have a chilling effect on distressed veterans who might be contemplating suicide.
“Every veteran I’ve talked to is outraged,” said Dan Karnes, president of the Roanoke Valley Veterans Council. “When we have veterans that are coming back from wars now, they’ll think twice about seeking help when they see what was done to him.”
Another focus of their ire: the man in charge of the office pursuing the charges against Duvall. If anyone should be sensitive to the needs of veterans, they say, it should be Timothy Heaphy, who is the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia and the son-in-law of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.
And the case’s military connections don’t end with Shinseki, a retired Army chief of staff. Randy Cargill, Duvall’s public defender, who is a West Point graduate and veteran, argues that the country Duvall served is now betraying him. Cargill has filed a motion to dismiss the charges, saying that his client was calling a confidential hotline and that by prosecuting him the government is violating that trust.
Duvall “risked everything for his country,” Cargill wrote. “He became a link in the chain of mutual trust that is the backbone of our armed forces. He was there when his comrades needed him. And when he needed help, he trusted his government would provide it on the terms offered — in confidence.”
Through a spokesman, Heaphy declined to comment. But his office has argued that it has an obligation to prosecute Duvall, who admitted to making and possessing the weapon and was on the Virginia Tech campus, the site of a mass shooting in 2007, at the time of his call. By responding and getting him help, authorities “saved Duvall’s life,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald R. Wolthuis wrote in response to the motion to dismiss the charges.
“Certainly, the prospect of a mentally unstable, armed individual on the Virginia Tech campus, who has a present intention to cause violent harm, certainly captures our attention,” Wolthuis said at a hearing last week.
He acknowledged that Duvall is, in many ways, a sympathetic figure, but he said in court papers that “as much as we, as a society, appreciate the efforts and sacrifices made by war veterans such as Duvall, their status as veterans does not make them above the law. The law must be applied with equal force to all in this country, and Duvall must face the pending charges, just as anybody else would.”
Duvall grew up in a military family. His father was a retired Marine who served in the Vietnam War. His mother served in the Navy. His grandfather served during World War II.
He graduated from Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge in 1984, according to his Facebook page, and then attended Virginia Commonwealth University. He enlisted in the Navy in 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, and was deployed to the Gulf and off the coast of Somalia. He received positive evaluations from superiors, one of whom called him “diligent and resourceful” and “a dedicated team player.” In 1995, Duvall was honorably discharged.
Duvall and Cargill declined to be interviewed for this article.
After his military career, Duvall worked various jobs, including a 10-year stint at a Roanoke steel plant. Then, in 2008, his father died, which “greatly affected him,” according to court records. He left his job at the plant and later another job at Virginia Tech, where he worked part-time as a cook.
Between 2006 and 2010, he was found guilty of several offenses, including public intoxication, driving while intoxicated and destruction of property. In 2010, he was treated for depression at a VA Hospital. And by June 2011, he was unemployed, behind on his bills and homeless.
For a week, the divorced father of two, who has salt-and-pepper hair and a thick mustache, wandered aimlessly around Blacksburg, thinking about ending his life. Some nights he slept outside an abandoned apartment building near Virginia Tech; sometimes he walked all night, according to court papers. He wrote a goodbye note to his family.
Just after midnight on June 8, he pulled out a VA handbook, found the number for the suicide hotline and called.
In cases where there is an imminent threat, VA counselors have an obligation to notify law enforcement under agency regulations. But the VA has made efforts to keep veterans out of jail through the Veteran Justice Outreach Initiative, a program that began in 2009 and is designed “to avoid the unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration among veterans.”
In a statement, VA spokesman Josh Taylor said veterans should have confidence in the crisis line: “Calling the Veterans Crisis Line is an act of courage, and VA crisis responders are there to provide help and save veterans’ lives.”
The hotline receives several hundred calls a day, although only a small percentage are from veterans in danger of hurting themselves or others.
At a budget hearing last week, Shinseki talked about the need to help struggling veterans, especially as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
A VA spokesman said Shinseki was unavailable to comment on how he felt about his son-in-law’s office bringing the charges against Duvall. But when Heaphy was sworn in as U.S. attorney in 2009, Shinseki gave a short speech about public service and the calling to help veterans in need.
“Veterans for some unfortunate reason lead the country in homelessness, mental health problems, depression, substance abuse and suicides,” Shinseki said at the ceremony. His job is to figure out why and to help them “have a better outcome than they currently have.”
A judge in Roanoke is weighing whether to dismiss the charges against Duvall or to allow the case to proceed to trial. If that happens, veterans groups say they will pack the courtroom with uniformed veterans.
Meanwhile, Duvall is doing much better, according to the court file. He sees a counselor and a psychiatrist. He has a new job as a machine operator in a metal shop and a new apartment.
In a posting on his Facebook page in August, he told his friends about his progress.
“Thank god I’m making decent money again,” he wrote. “Last two years have been rough.”
Researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.
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