March 10, 2015; Indianapolis Star

There was nothing funny about the racist SAE students at the University of Oklahoma turning a chant about lynching Blacks into the college bus trip equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Hopefully, in the wake of that 10-second video followed by the expulsion of the chant ringleaders and the closing of the SAE chapter at OU, people have learned that some kinds of jokes just aren’t funny.

That message didn’t get through to Robin Paul, a manager at the Roudebush Veterans Affairs hospital in Indianapolis. In an email she sent at the end of December, this licensed social worker who manages the Seamless Transition Integrated Care Clinic at the hospital tried a version of VA humor that she clearly found funny but others did not. The photos showed an elf, apparently meant to represent a veteran, performing a pap smear on a Barbie doll, getting a prescription for Xanax, and trying to hang itself with an electrical cord, captioned, “Naughty elf in the STICC clinic.” 

“We hope it’s an isolated incident,” Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in quotes published by multiple outlets. “We hope this person has been dealt with aggressively because we’re in the middle of a suicide problem.”

Rush has since been put on administrative leave pending an investigation; Roudebush’s director, Tom Mattice apologized for the email in a statement announcing her removal: “The email message that was sent out by Ms. Paul is completely and totally unacceptable. It in no way reflects the attitudes of our staff toward our patients.”

Somehow, in the middle of the drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan, mocking veterans’ suicides and mental health issues isn’t much of a joke. That’s been some of the defense, if you can call it that, of the SAE guys—it was ribald humor and that all of us critics of it are just too PC. That doesn’t cut it. In the nonprofit and public sector workplace, because workers in those environments are serving the public, there should be no room for jokes like that Indianapolis VA manager’s.—Rick Cohen