By Christian Davenport
At the lowest moment of his life, Sean Duvall pulled out his cellphone just past midnight and called the 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 hotline 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 Gulf War veteran to a psychiatric facility, where he was treated for depression and began feeling better about his life and prospects.
Had it ended at that, Duvall’s story would be a triumph, 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 VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
And the case’s military connections don’t end with Shinseki, a retired Army chief of staff. Randy Cargill, Duvall’s public defender, is also a veteran and West Point graduate, who argues that the country Duvall served is now betraying him. Cargill has filed a motion to dismiss the charges, saying his client was calling a confidential hotline and that by prosecuting him the government is violating that trust.