National Disgrace: What Would We Do if Terrorists Were Killing 22 Americans a Day?

Another Memorial Day has come and gone, another Veterans Affairs scandal unfolds apace. Meanwhile, at least 22 veterans a day commit suicide.

It should be obvious by now that Veterans Affairs is not equipped to deliver adequate health care to the nation's former soldiers. From the scandal at substandard Walter Reed Hospital a few years back to waiting lists and inadequate care today, Congress should finally get the message. The agency needs to get out of operating a health-care business.

Close the hospitals and sell them off. Issue every veteran a card, like a Medicare card, and allow them to go wherever they need to go to get the best care. Then have the veterans department pay for it. The elimination of the costly, inefficient bureaucracy that runs our military veterans' health-care system and the closing of substandard facilities would likely save money in the long run, and veterans would get better care. Because of the current back-up scandal, the government is letting veterans go to civilian facilities, but that's a stop-gap measure. That should be the model for a new structure.

Even if you are lucky enough to have veterans' hospitals that are in good shape and offering quality care, you still have to find them. There is a veterans' hospital in Murfreesboro. There is one in the tri-cities. In between? Forget it.

If we insist on having veterans' hospitals, it is a disgrace that middle East Tennessee doesn't have one. A proposed veterans hospital in Roane County was rejected. Outpatient clinics were opened last year in Harriman and Athens. Better than nothing, I suppose. But veterans should be able to use the outstanding medical services and hospitals in Knoxville.

I'm a Vietnam veteran. Luckily, I don't have to rely on Veterans Affairs for my health care. But there are plenty of veterans who do.

One of the most pressing needs, and the greatest health threat to the current group of veterans, is mental-health care. The 22-suicides-a-day figure is likely understated. Some states don't even report veteran suicides, according to CNN.

When I got back from Vietnam, I went to doctors to try and get treated for my asthma. My chest would seem to close up at night and I couldn't breathe. I felt like I was going to suffocate. An old country doctor in my home town finally told me I had "nerves" and told me he'd give me some nerve pills.

We now recognize post-traumatic stress disorder. At the time, I just got angry. Nerve pills were for little old ladies. What the hell? The panic attacks faded away, luckily. All I had to deal with going forward was depression. I've coped fairly well, but I have an understanding for those whose condition is worse.

The veterans' bureaucracy grew up during the 1950s. Virtually every member of Congress had served in the military in World War II. Veterans were by far the largest voting bloc in America. Benefit programs grew. The G.I. Bill was passed. Budgets were liberal, facilities were new.

But over the years, the number of young men serving, as a percentage of the population, has declined. On holidays, politicians give lip service to our brave men and women. They even have parades now. But the day after the holiday, things go back to normal. And at least 22 more veterans commit suicide.

If terrorists were killing 22 Americans a day, it would be a national emergency. People would be screaming for action. The government would spend whatever it cost to put a stop to the carnage. We've spent a trillion dollars on the military since 9/11 because 3,000 of us were murdered. The Homeland Security budget grows every year. No one knows how much the NSA is spending.

It takes about 135 days for 3,000 veterans to die by their own hand. But they aren't in one place. We don't have film at 11. How many of them died because they couldn't find a veterans' hospital or couldn't get an appointment?

It's a national disgrace.