Tick, tick, tick. The Conundrum of Mentally Ill Time Bombs

(Editorial by Chris Armold) [The author of "A Vulgar Display Of Power: Courage and Carnage at the Alrosa Villa" reflects on madmen behind the VA Tech, the Alrosa Villa killings, and means of prevention.] My first experience in dealing directly with a person suffering from a severe mental illness was 1982. I was a policeman in the USAF and every few months a man named "Carl" would approach the main gate of Grissom Air Force Base seeking help. His problem was perplexing. According to Carl, "the government" was reading his thoughts and monitoring his activities. I was the "Flight Sergeant," the equivalent of a civilian police departments shift supervisor. I held the rank of Staff Sergeant and was 22 years old. My gate guards would call me and tell me that "Carl" was at the gate looking for guidance. I'd always make a few calls; the hospital, the Veterans Administration and the base legal office asking for counsel. The results were always the same; No, I'd answer, Carl's never threatened anyone harm, nor has he spoken of violence and as far as I was concerned he was not a threat to himself or others. Our solution was simple; we would find a piece of tin foil and form-fit it to the crown of the baseball hat Carl always wore. With that "shield" in place, the government, the aliens or who ever was reading Carl's thoughts would be repelled by the reflective qualities of the foil. Carl would be placated and would wander off in the direction of Kokomo, Indiana.

While I felt sorry for this man burdened with his ailment, my young colleagues and I were also amused by it. We found it funny; this "psycho" wandering around with tin foil beneath his cap repelling the phantom intrusions into his mind.

25 years later I'm haunted by Carl and my apathy regarding his plight. However, my excuse for my lack of action then is the same as it is today. I didn't have a clue what to do, nor did anyone up my chain of command. While I've gained knowledge, insight and considerable compassion for people, I am saddened by the fact that there are innumerable "Carls" roaming our communities. Lost souls, misunderstood and suffering from demons that the unaffiliated can't begin to fathom.

My interest in exploring realistic, functional solutions to these prisoners of mental illness was rekindled in December 2004 when Damageplan guitarist Darrell Abbott, formerly of the band Pantera, was murdered onstage in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to Abbott, three other men, Jeff Thompson, Erin Halk and Nathan Bray were also murdered as they tried to save others from the wrath of a crazed gunman. After months of reading snippets about the murders I decided to write a book about the heroes of that evening. Released in April, 2007 "A Vulgar Display of Power: Courage and Carnage at the Alrosa Villa" was designed to be a tribute to courage, heroism and selfless love of others. I believe the book accomplished that mission but it also pointed out difficult lessons and questions that we as a society must knuckle down and address. The most difficult being: "What does a modern, caring, society do about people who we identify as being afflicted by a serious, debilitating mental illness?" The killer of Abbott, Bray, Halk and Thompson was a 25 year old male named Nathan Gale. Gale was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by the US Marines. The Marines did everything by the book. They hospitalized Gale, treated him, counseled him and tailored a pharmaceutical solution to his demons with anti-psychotic medications. Most importantly they sat the young man down and carefully explained his condition. However, he was not permitted to remain a Marine and was discharged. 13 Months later Gale would murder four people and would subsequently be killed by the police.

Seung-Hui Cho, like Nathan Gale, was pre-identified as being mentally unstable and on April 16, 2007 he succumbed to the voices in his head and brutally murdered 32 innocent people on the campus of Virginia Tech.

CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC and others banter back and forth assigning blame, while at the same time creating a cult of personality for Cho. Rational, reasonable people need to take a step back and consider a very complex dilemma. Is there anything reasonable & responsible that we can do about people like Nathan Gale and Seung-Hui Cho? After Gale committed his crime the Marine Corp was accused of "unleashing" a psychotic, trained "killing machine" on an unsuspecting populace. Virginia Tech is now facing similar scrutiny as people ask the question; how could someone known to be mentally unstable be permitted to roam around unsupervised?

The answer is as harsh as reality itself. Who do institutions like Virginia Tech or the US Marines "tell?" Who do we saddle with the burden of monitoring the lives of adults who are afflicted with mental illness? Do we lock them up and throw away the key? Do we condemn them to an institutionalized life solely as a precaution? Americans value freedom and liberty with a passion. To an American, the idea of repressing individual liberties based on a mental or medical diagnosis and a limited potential of future violence is repugnant. Yet, at the same time one feels that there must be some solutions, some ways to mitigate the potential for the carnage propagated by mental illness. Or is there?

Once again reality rears its ugly head. With intense and salacious media coverage focused on the carnage at Virginia Tech, it's easy to forget that in reality massacres committed by guys like Cho and Gale are rare. In a nation where approximately 50 thousand people die each year in automobile accidents we shrug our shoulders and say "accidents happen." Despite spending billions of dollars on highway safety and vehicle safety devices, we've accepted that people are going to die in auto accidents. End of story.

Could it be the same for mental illness? I'm skeptical that a realistic manageable protocol, process or procedure can be adopted nationwide to monitor, assess and control people who have mental health issues, especially if they have no history of violence. Is it worth exploring? Absolutely, but it's going to take the best and brightest of our society to develop a viable solution, if it's possible at all. It is also going to take money, lots of money, perhaps more money than we're willing to spend. My humble suggestion goes to the root of the problem; and that is education. Those who knew Nathan Gale and Seung-Hui Cho all indicate that each was "a loner" or "odd" or "strange." It only takes a few moments to educate a person about the traits and symptoms of someone struggling with a mental issue. It is time we each take a few moments and educate ourselves about basic mental illness and what resources are available to help those in need. Just for an example, point your web browser at www.schizophrenia.com. You will be amazed at what you learn and what myths you dispel in just a few moments. You'll also be surprised to learn that the actions of Cho and Gale are absolutely not typical of people suffering from mental illness and that bears contemplation.

Sadly this piece ends as it started. 25 years after my encounters with Carl, today, even if I heard the tick, tick, tick of a potentially volatile personality held hostage by the demons of mental illness…who does one tell?

I don't know…and it breaks my heart.

Chris Armold, BS, MS, MSgt, USAF (Ret)

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