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There are some 400 state troopers, investigators, FBI and ATF agents trying to gather the threads left behind during the unraveling of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho.

More than two months into it, we're getting a diagnosis: Cho was a "collector of injustice" — someone who blames everyone else for their problems.

But many of us armchair analysts had arrived at a diagnosis within hours of the April 16 disaster: This guy was sick in the head, big time. He was FUBAR, to deploy an old military acronym immortalized in the movie "Saving Private Ryan."

Like many of you, I felt the Virginia Tech massacre like a body blow. But as a reporter, I did next-to-nothing with the story, even though I was there that night, and it was clearly one of the biggest news stories of the millennium.

One look at the media scrum at Tech was enough to know that every detail would be gathered and disseminated at light speed.

Still, the reporter in me bayed: "Get in there and grab a piece!"

The rest of me whispered: "Get out. There's nothing new there."

That internal tug-of-war continued for days.

Finally, someone I respect who is familiar with the news business said five words that crystallized my unease with it all:

"It's like a weather story."

Record floods. Record snows. Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Freak storms. Lightning-sparked wildfires. Reporters furiously chronicle the damage and share the stories of loss, heartache and heroics.

And then we wait for the next storm. As Peggy Lee sang, "Is that all there is?"

This mad shooter's toll was simply the biggest, a record — something he clearly set out to accomplish as he gripped his guns and his aching head.

It was far from the first. We seem to be running four or five of these run-and-gun-amok incidents a year.

And it won't be the last.

These words aren't born so much out of cynicism, but out of frustration.

I have written Cho's story dozens of times during the past two decades. Usually the toll from these misguided missiles is smaller — one or two bodies, sometimes more. They represent the steady drip, drip of devastation that is easy to tune out.

On the weather-story scale, they're a sprinkle. Typically, there are no touching bios of the victims in the news. Rarely are there vigils, funeral coverage, races to get quotes from families or attempts to analyze why this person went off like meteor shower.

But collectively, they're a nonstop tornado. Smaller but related side storms include substance abuse, homelessness and suicide.

They share the same sad subplot: Runaway mental illness and its amazing cost to a society that screams for the best physical health care but whispers about a mental health care system so woefully inadequate that our prisons have become the default treatment centers for those with blown fuses.

Remember Will Morva? He went off the deep end last year in Blacksburg. Friends and acquaintances were alarmed at how he'd run barefoot through the woods and rant about wanting to fight wildcats. Then he allegedly killed a hospital security guard and a decorated deputy. (Meanwhile, the worst killing spree of the year — the slaughter of the Harvey and Tucker-Baskerville families — was orchestrated by current death row inhabitant Ricky Gray, whose mental problems and horrendous upbringing snapped into focus during his trial.)

How about Daniel Bowler, the convicted robber? He had been treated for severe psychosis at Central State Hospital, then released with a prescription for Halidol. But his family couldn't afford it or successfully apply for help to get it. He shot and killed three people in South Richmond in 2005 and was later found to be too crazy for prosecution. (Meanwhile, the biggest crime story of that year, the disappearance and death of Virginia Commonwealth University coed Taylor Behl, was laid at the feet of known head-case and creep Ben Fawley.)

Another case occurred in 2004 on West Grace Street. Neighbors, friends and family knew Walt Kaminski had stripped a gear. He had stopped taking the medications that kept him from hearing voices. He was convinced people were sneaking into his apartment, planting cameras. A former neighbor had called police, reporting Kaminski's creepy threats.

His condition worsened. Those who knew him could see the explosion coming.

That March, he set fire to the rooming house, went upstairs, fired numerous shots into a man he hardly knew, then went outside and blew his brains out.

These are tough problems. The complexities of balancing personal freedom against the desire to protect individuals — often from themselves — makes it a tar-baby issue: The harder you hit it, the stickier it seems to get.

A year and a half ago, the Virginia State Bar staged a conference in Richmond that brought sheriffs, judges, special justices, lawyers and mental health practitioners together to plan a reform of the state's mental-health laws to better deal with those who are a danger to themselves and others.

Just 30 days before the Tech tragedy, a mental health and law symposium was held in Charlottesville to address civil commitment reform by University of Virginia's Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy.

The Supreme Court of Virginia's Commission on Mental Health Law Reform has been at it since October, trying to tackle service access problems so the ill can get help "before these problems spiral out of control," according to the commission's mission statement.

The commitment and temporary detention laws have become clear. Where it falls apart is in the application. Service providers are too overwhelmed, understaffed and underfunded to provide the analysis, treatment and follow-through that can make a difference.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch's Bill McKelway, who has deeply mined the mental health issues in the wake of Tech, concluded a recent report with this paragraph:

"Local mental health agencies are short about 230 case managers; 60 percent of the regional agencies have two staff members or less per 50,000 people; the average wait for outpatient treatment is 35 days; and almost 60 percent of the agencies have seen a decrease in outpatient treatment capacity in the past decade at a time when pressure for that service is increasing."

The system's inability to deal with Cho's obvious warning signs is typical of the paralysis many families encounter when trying to get help for a loved one, treatment advocate Mary Zdanowicz told The Roanoke Times.

That newspaper also quoted Paul Lombardo, a Georgia State law professor who spent 16 years working on Virginia's mental health laws.

"Forget about gunshots and dormitories," he said. "We don't have the political will to spend the money for adequate mental health services."

This is the real health care crisis in this country. We've gotten pretty good at whipping cancer, swapping hip joints and heart valves. But for mental health treatment, the lack of resources has left us not far removed from bloodletting.

Will the presidential candidates take a stand? Will state and local politicians act?

Was the Tech disaster enough shock treatment to spark meaningful action?

If not, it was just another weather story. New at 11 — it rained bodies again today.

And while we wait for the next big one, we can sing along with Peggy Lee: If that's all there is, my friends, let's keep dancing. We'll break out the booze, and have a ball, if that's all…." S

Mark Holmberg reports for WTVR-TV 6.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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