By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON – What role did mental health issues play in the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard that resulted in 12 deaths? How did the killer come to have a government security clearance in the first place? What more should be done to ensure the physical security of bases?
These were among the questions that federal investigators, lawmakers and the public were trying to answer in the wake of the shooting spree last month by Navy contractor Aaron Alexis.
“Obviously, something went wrong,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said during a press conference after the incident. He promised that, in the coming days, “more information will come to light about what happened, about what went wrong, and, importantly, what must be fixed.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill also called for action after the shootings.
“The shooting at the Washington Navy Yard makes clear that, as we said in the wake of Newtown, these kinds of mass killings can happen anywhere, any school, any community—in Newtown, the quintessential New England town or at the Washington Navy Yard—a supposedly secure military facility,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) on the Senate floor.
Mental Health Concerns
In the aftermath of the tragedy, scrutiny focused on Alexis’ mental health and treatment he had received. He had served in the Navy from 2007-2011 and was a government contractor with a security clearance at the time of the incident.
News reports, however, painted a disturbing picture of him as a troubled individual who been hearing voices in the weeks prior to the killings and had a rocky past that included prior incidents with guns.
Alexis received care from VA prior to the killings, but he had denied having thoughts about harming himself or others when asked by clinicians there, the VA said in a written statement.
The statement said that Alexis received treatment on August 23, when he visited the emergency room at the VA Medical Center in Providence, R.I., complaining of insomnia. After a medical examination, he had been given “a small amount of medication to help him sleep and was instructed to follow up with a primary care provider,” the VA added.
“On August 28th Alexis went to the emergency room at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to request a medication refill and attributed his insomnia to his work schedule,” according to the statement. “He was given a small refill and was instructed to follow up with a primary care provider. On both occasions, Mr. Alexis was alert and oriented, and was asked by VA doctors if he was struggling with anxiety or depression, or had thoughts about harming himself or others, all of which he denied.”
The VA reported that, according to his records, Alexis “never sought an appointment from a mental health specialist, and had previously either canceled or failed to show up for primary care appointments and claims evaluations examinations he had scheduled at VA medical centers.”
Lawmakers, however, wanted more details about the VA care and benefits Alexis received. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), who made an initial inquiry, sent a follow-up letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki saying that the incident “raises a number of troubling questions.” In his letter he emphasized that his committee wanted “all records, documents, e-mails, and any other material in VA’s possession related in any way to Aaron Alexis.”
“It is also necessary to request that all employees, contractors and officials of the VA be directed to preserve all records, including electronic records, work e-mail and personal e-mail communications relating to Aaron Alexis, and calendars and schedules of all employees (and paper copies and versions of those records) in the possession or control of the VA or its staff or employees, touching upon any issue relating to this veteran,” he wrote.