Indianapolis VA Hospital Under Fire for Email Making Fun of Veterans

The email contained an image of a toy elf hanging himself with holiday lights.

— -- The Department of Veterans Affairs took another hit today as news surfaced that an email had been circulated to staffers at an Indianapolis VA hospital making fun of the mental health problems suffered by returning combat veterans.

The Dec. 18 message included several images of a toy Christmas elf, according to The Indianapolis Star, which obtained the email.

The email was sent by social worker Robin Paul to her staff within the Seamless Transition Integrated Care Clinic at the Roudebush VA Medical Center.

In one photograph, the elf pleads for Xanax, which is prescribed to treat anxiety and panic. The caption reads: "Self-medicating for mental health issues." In another image, the elf hangs by a Christmas light with the message: "Caught in the act of suicidal behavior (trying to hang himself from an electrical cord)."

The news comes at a time when suicide among military veterans claims an estimated 22 lives a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Critics called today's news just another black mark on an agency mired in scandal. In May 2014, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid accusations that the department had hid unacceptably long wait times for patient care. In February, his replacement apologized after falsely claiming that he'd served in Special Forces.

"All we want for the VA to do is to be able to fix what's broken, to hold employees accountable and help restore the faith of veterans in their VA health care system," said Joe Davis, director of public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "This one employee, this one supervisor, violated all three of those. ... It was [an] extremely poor attempt at humor."

In a statement released by a facility spokeswoman, Paul , the social worker who sent the email, said: "I would like to sincerely apologize for the email message and I take full responsibility for this poor judgment. ... I hold all Veterans and military personnel in the highest regard and am deeply remorseful for any hurt this may have caused."

In an emailed statement, the hospital called Paul's email "totally inappropriate."

"The Indianapolis VA Medical is committed to treating our Veterans and the health conditions they face with the utmost respect and compassion," the hospital said. "We apologize to our Veterans and take suicide and mental health treatment seriously, striving to provide the highest quality."

The VA would not say whether Paul had been fired, only that the matter had been handled.