When a man carrying a knife scaled the White House fence and was arrested inside the mansion Friday evening, an issue President Obama has been grappling with for years - troubled veterans returning from combat - literally landed in his entryway.
The country has contended with the issue of veterans coming home with mental wounds for as long as it has sent soldiers into war. But the issue has taken on an increased urgency during Obama's years in office, as Obama has wound down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands of combat veterans have returned. Veteran health care -- both mental and physical -- has come into sharp focus as scandals involving wait lists to see doctors rocked the Veterans Administration earlier this year.
The man who jumped the fence at the White House, Omar J. Gonzalez, served three tours of duty in Iraq, according to his public defender. His family said he was a sniper. His medical records have not been released, but his former stepson told The Post that Gonzalez suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Gonzalez's ex-wife told an NBC affiliate in Indianapolis that her former husband had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is unclear if Gonzalez was diagnosed before or after his tours in Iraq; during one tour his wife said he suffered a traumatic incident he could not talk about.
Though Gonzalez's case is an extreme one, advocates said it is a stark reminder that many people are returning from combat with mental wounds that are left untreated.
"It’s quite sobering if you ask me. It hits very close to home in a sense," said Adrian Atizado, assistant national legislative director at Disabled American Veterans. "But you know this is going to be an issue that I think this country and our government is going to have to try its best to address for the next few years as more service members get out of the military."
The issue of mentally ill veterans may be affecting Obama now in a direct and personal way, but he's long been connected on a policy level. He has lobbied to expand mental health care for veterans since he was in the Senate seven years ago. Last month at the American Legion's national conference in Charlotte, he announced 19 executive actions to help improve mental health care for veterans, including orders automatically providing support for outgoing members of the military with mental health issues and expanding suicide prevention programs.
“We can’t stand idly by on such tragedy,” Obama said of military suicides. "So long as any service member or veteran is suffering or feels like they have nowhere to turn or doesn’t get the support that they need, that means we haven’t done enough. We all know we need to do more."
But some advocates for veterans think the Obama administration needs to do much more.
"There is tremendous anger and outrage and disappointment across all sectors of the veterans community across all generations," because of the VA scandal and a sense that veterans are not being listened to, said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"Nobody’s been surprised," at Gonzalez's case, he said. "What they’re really surprised is he got to the front door because we’re all security experts. We know there are a lot of veterans who are extremely ill and are severely injured and feel lost."
Phil Carter, Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, said Gonzalez's case brings up three relevant questions concerning the care of similar vets: what to do if someone comes into the military with a mental illness, how to treat soldiers who are diagnosed with mental illness while on active duty and whether injury compensation should also include a treatment mandate.
"I wouldn’t generalize from this case, but I would use this as a learning moment to ask those three questions," he said.
Ron Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said there is a much broader conversation to have about post-traumatic stress disorder and the quality of care for the mental wounds suffered by service members in combat. But, as a society, "we're not very prepared to to respond to the needs of these individuals," Honberg said.
People are still loathe to interfere in people's lives, he said, and there are cultural factors in the military that "sort of make it taboo or at least discourage people" from seeking help.
Honberg said he believes the administration has done a lot to heighten awareness of mental health in soldiers, but fissures remain.
"There’s this big, big gap between recognizing that individuals have these needs and actually creating an environment that’s conducive to people getting help when they need it," he said.
Can the Gonzalez case serve to heighten awareness of mental health issues for vets?
Shad Meshad, president and founder of the National Veterans Foundation, thinks Obama should talk to Gonzalez.
"He has an opportunity," Meshad said of Obama, "to sit down and show he has the you-know-what to listen to someone who was that disturbed and served his country," Meshad said. "Maybe there's something to learn."