With a promise to ramp up security, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visited the El Paso VA clinic Thursday after an agency psychologist was fatally shot by an Iraq war veteran and former employee of the clinic.
“The entire Veterans Affairs family is here to show their empathy for the employees here and the veterans here that we care so much about,” McDonald said. “I’m here to talk to employees today and to tell that whatever support they need they will get.”
Peter Dancy, acting director of the El Paso VA Health Care System, said the facility would increase security, including more thorough identification checks, when it reopens on Friday.
VA psychologist Timothy Fjordbak, 63, was allegedly shot and killed by Jerry Serrato, 48, on the fourth floor of the El Paso clinic, FBI special agent Doug Lindquist said. Serrato then “actually went to the third floor, and that’s where he took his own life,” Lindquist said.
The VA said it is providing grief and other counseling services to staff, veterans, service members and their families throughout the day at El Paso Community College and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday inside the center.
The increased security will involve VA police conducting 100 percent identification checks and randomly checking bags and parcels. The procedures will be in place until further notice, according to the agency.
Serrato worked at the VA as a desk clerk in 2013. The incident that prompted Fjordbak to file a complaint against him took place in a grocery store, Lindquist said.
“Mr. Serrato approached Dr. Fjordbak, who did not recognize him, and he made a verbal threat,” said Lindquist, who paraphrased the threat as: “ ‘I know what you did and I will take care of that,’ something to that effect.”
Fjordbak filed the complaint in October 2013, according to an FBI tweet. Lindquist said it was the only connection authorities have found between the victim and the alleged shooter.
The incident at the clinic was reported about 3:10 p.m. local time Tuesday, said Maj. Gen. Stephen Twitty, commanding general of Fort Bliss. FBI investigators have interviewed 400 witnesses, some of whom were seeking medical attention.
A former employee at the El Paso clinic told The Post that Fjordbak, the center’s chief psychologist, was respected and that he had expressed concern about his safety before Serrato threatened him. The former staffer spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern that his comments would result in retribution for people who still work at the facility.
Serrato, a former soldier, had expressed anger about being denied a claim of post-traumatic stress after VA officials did not find his claim credible, the former employee said. U.S. Army officials said Wednesday that he served as an infantryman and left the Army as an enlisted specialist. He served in Iraq from March to July 2007 and was medically discharged with undisclosed physical ailments in February 2009.
While security measures are in place at VA hospitals, the former employee said he and his colleagues discussed feeling vulnerable at the clinic, which had no metal detectors. Some guards there carry Taser-like electroshock devices, he said, but they can be slow to arrive if someone pushes a panic button to call for help.
Separate from the shooting incident, the El Paso health-care system has been under review for long patient wait times. A recent inspector general report confirmed the problem and said the clinic had the sixth-worst wait times in the vast VA hospital network, which includes more than 128 medical centers.
“They’re overworked, understaffed, underpaid and under-equipped,” the former employee said. “Doctors were bringing their pens from home.”
A recent nationwide VA scandal involving wait-time coverups prompted the resignation of former VA secretary Eric Shinseki, a respected former general with a long service record. He was replaced by McDonald, who has vowed to refocus on veteran care and stop the practices that hid wait-time problems.
McDonald had planned to visit the El Paso clinic after attending the Student Veterans of America conference in San Antonio this weekend.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.