El Paso: The VA & Security

VA Chief

Image courtesy of Federal Times/Dept. of Veterans Affairs

El Paso: The VA & Security
| published January 10, 2015 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

The one thing the Veterans Administration would prefer these days is zero negative news, or at least as little news as possible. Despite the agency’s new chief, Robert McDonald—a can-do guy from the corporate world of cleaning products—and despite a major effort to manage the flow and tone of its previously smudgy news coverage, the VA has been unable to keep itself off the front page and out of the newsfeed, and for all the wrong reasons.

A veteran apparently killed a doctor at an El Paso Veterans Administration Health Care System clinic last week, before turning the gun on himself, according to CNN, the Washington Post and other news sources.

"The alleged shooter is dead, and we have one casualty," said Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, commanding general of Fort Bliss. "That casualty is deceased. All other VA patients and staff are safe. This is an active crime scene, and the shooting incident is under investigation."

“All other VA patients and staff are safe,” Twitty said. “Everything is under control and there is no immediate threat to Fort Bliss or the local community.”

The FBI is investigating the shooting, and the Bureau's Doug Lindquist noted hundreds of witnesses must be interviewed. “They were here seeking medical assistance,” he said. The VA immediately released a statement concerning the tragedy, also noting the facility would be closed the following day.

"We will continue to cooperate fully with military and civilian authorities at Beaumont Army Medical Center. The safety and continued care of our veterans and the staff will be our focus throughout this situation," the statement read.

A Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a doctor was shot by a gunman, who later died from a self-inflicted wound, CNN reported. A spokesman for the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, which is adjacent to the VA facility, said the incident forced the area to be placed on lockdown. The clinic serves the El Paso area and Fort Bliss, home to the Army's 1st Armored Division. The fort was on lockdown for about an hour as authorities sought a person with a gun who they believed was acting alone.

Although the El Paso Veterans Affairs health-care system has been under investigation for long patient wait times, evidently the recent shooting at the Texas clinic was unrelated. The doctor who was fatally shot on Tuesday had previously filed a threat complaint against his alleged killer, FBI officials told the Washington Post on Wednesday.

A recent inspector general review confirmed numerous problems were discovered and noted El Paso had the sixth worst wait-time in the vast VA hospital network, which has more than 128 facilities in its system.

“They’re overworked, understaffed, underpaid and underequipped,” the former clinic employee said. “Doctors were bringing their pens from home.”

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. Then Serrato “actually went to the third floor, and that’s where he took his own life,” Lindquist said.

Serrato, who was once in the military, worked as a desk clerk at the VA in 2013. However, the incident that prompted Fjordbak to file a complaint occurred 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, and that was the only connection found between the victim and alleged shooter, according to the FBI. The clinic incident was reported around 3:10 p.m. Tuesday, said Maj. Gen. Stephen Twitty, commanding general of Fort Bliss. FBI investigators have interviewed approximately 400 witnesses, some of whom were people seeking medical attention.

A former VA employee at the El Paso clinic told The Post in a phone interview that Fjordbak was well regarded at the facility, showing meticulousness and dedication to his work. As the chief psychologist at the clinic, he expressed concern about his own safety even before Serrato threatened him, the employee said.

Serrato, a former soldier, expressed anger about being denied a claim of post-traumatic stress. VA officials did not find his claim credible, the former employee added. He spoke to The Post on condition of anonymity out of concern that his comments could result in discipline or retribution for people he knows still working there.

While VA hospitals have security, the former employee said he and his old colleagues discussed feeling vulnerable at the clinic, which had no metal detectors. Some guards carry Taser-like electroshock devices, he said, but they can be slow to arrive if someone pushes a panic button calling for help.

U.S. Army officials said Serrato left the Army as an enlisted specialist, where he served as an infantryman. He deployed to Iraq from March to July of 2007 and was medically discharged with undisclosed physical ailments in February 2009.

Serrato initially served in the Ohio Army National Guard from 1985 to 1989 and joined the active-duty Army in July 2006 during a time when the military was anxiously seeking recruits. He served primarily with the 10th Mountain Division’s 89th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team at Fort Polk, La.

Serrato did not earn the Purple Heart award for sustaining any injuries in combat, nor did he earn the Combat Infantryman Badge, which normally goes to infantrymen who have personally fought in ground combat. His awards include the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal with a campaign star, a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the Army Service Ribbon, officials said.

The William Beaumont Army Medical Center, which is adjacent to the El Paso VA main health-care facility, was placed on lockdown Tuesday afternoon following reports of an active shooter situation. Twitty said the VA “immediately enacted their response plan for all persons to shelter in place.” Lindquist described the response to the active shooting as “a model of how to respond.”

In September 2014, Fort Bliss officials said they would be ramping up security measures after a military assessment found the base was out of compliance. Changes included random vehicle checks and limiting access at certain gates. The VA Clinic is technically a part of the base but not on the main post, a base spokesman said.

The president of the VA employees’ union, David Cox Sr., said in a statement: “Our VA medical centers are where veterans and their families come to heal and feel safe. Incidents such as this violate that sense of protection.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

VA Accountability in Central Alabama; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; September 8, 2014.

Truth & Lies at the VA, Part Two; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review (Archives); July 27, 2014.