By BEN NADLER, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — A man who identified himself as an Air Force veteran protesting the VA system strapped fireworks to his chest and lit himself on fire Tuesday in front of the Georgia Capitol.
The ordeal prompted the Capitol building to be evacuated and the surrounding streets to be shut down. No one else was hurt.
The man was identified by Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesperson Nelly Miles as John Michael Watts, age 58. The department said he has no current address.
“He had (fireworks) strapped to himself and as I understand doused himself with some additional flammable and set himself on fire,” said Capt. Mark Perry of the Georgia Department of Public Safety.
Almost simultaneously, Perry said, “one of the Capitol troopers saw what was happening, came out, actually had a fire extinguisher and was able to douse him pretty quickly.”
Law officers have not provided details about the man’s complaints about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, saying only that he is disgruntled with the system.
“I’m not sure what his history is there, but he is disgruntled with the VA system and is trying to draw some attention to that. He stated something to the effect that he was looking for some help,” Perry said.
Perry said the man’s condition wasn’t immediately known; he was burned but could still speak to officers. Perry said the man identified himself as a veteran. He was brought to Grady Memorial Hospital.
Loud explosions can be heard in video of a news conference that was going on at the time. In the video posted by WSB-TV, Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale pauses several times and looks around nervously as the explosions are heard. Seconds later, the state troopers who were standing behind her hurry off to investigate. The news conference, on a Georgia law requiring hands-free electronic devices in automobiles, was then abruptly called off.
A Nissan Sentra possibly belonging to the man was parked in front of the Capitol and was investigated by a bomb squad unit on Tuesday afternoon.
“While we can’t comment on the specifics of this veteran’s case due to patient privacy laws, the department is ensuring he receives the VA care that he needs,” Jan Northstar, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Veterans groups in recent years have demanded changes in the nation’s Veterans Affairs system. Some veterans say they’ve had to wait months for appointments. On June 6, President Donald Trump signed legislation aimed at allowing veterans more freedom to see doctors outside the system in an attempt to reduce wait times and improve care.
Associated Press Writer Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed.