What happened at the Washington DC Navy Yard this week could have been prevented if the Veterans Administration had been handling the shooter’s mental-health issues more directly. The gunman had been sitting in a VA health facility within the last month. The VA said he had only complained of sleeplessness. Aaron Alexis left that VA clinic without treatment or proper diagnosis.

The shooter, Aaron Alexis, reported symptoms of paranoia including hearing voices. A diagnosis of mental instability by the VA could have prevented Alexis from buying a weapon. In this instance it would have saved twelve lives.

Some people might ask, why the VA couldn’t say with certainty that Alexis had mental issues. What happened to Alexis, happens to our veterans every day: “Vets have been saying for years that mental-health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs has been inadequate. Lawmakers have echoed that refrain. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled vets’ access to mental-health care was poor enough to make it unconstitutional.”

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, “More than half of all veterans who describe themselves as ‘seriously’ hurt or wounded from combat or peacetime service say the government did not give them ‘all the help … it should.’” This complaint has been spoken by veterans since before World War II. Our vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan now understand what so many before them had to understand, but the VA doesn’t help them when they get back.

Returning veterans with combat related issues have no choice but to go through the VA system. The Government promised they would take care of them when they enlisted. When they come back from combat wounded, or suffering with PTSD, they must rely on their government’s promise to take care of them. However, getting the care they were promised is not what happens.

An honorably discharged vet must fill out paperwork and make a claim. That is how a claim made for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD) related disability benefits begins. Usually this process takes 3 to 5 years before the veteran receives any compensation. Many veterans become destitute during the process. The long waiting period and the stigma associated with the vets’ mental-health claim, lead the vet right out the VA Clinic front door and into the street.

The vet is left alone to cope with a mental-health problem. There is no help coming from the folks who, when they enlisted, had promised to help. The claims process is over for that veteran and nobody cares.

USA TODAY reports that “Two-thirds or more of seriously hurt post-9/11 veterans report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Struggling to return to civilian life vets say the Department of Veteran Affairs does only a fair to poor job of helping them.”  

It is imperative that the VA understands that our veterans, no matter what the age or when they returned home, deserve our help. Suicides of young battle-scarred vets are rising and people are dying at the rate of 22 per day. The U.S. cannot afford to continue to do nothing. We must do as much as possible to make sure our vets have a  reliable place to go for help.

Richard Andrew is a guest blogger for Ring of Fire.