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Condolence Letter Policy Shift Opens Conversation on Military Suicides

July 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The White House announced this week that President Obama will now send condolences to families of troops who kill themselves in combat zones. Jeffrey Brown discusses the policy change and ongoing concerns over military suicides with retired Army Gen. Ronald Griffith and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America's Paul Rieckhoff.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, President Obama takes a step to better acknowledge suicides in the U.S. military.

Under the decision, the president would send his condolences to families of soldiers who commit suicide in combat zones. It follows years of focus on an increasing problem. Last year, for instance, there were 468 suicides throughout the armed forces, more than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan — 301 were in the regular Army, Reserves, and National Guard, up more than 20 percent from the year before.

There were 54 Air Force suicides, the most since 1994. Suicides in the U.S. Marine Corps fell nearly 30 percent. The Navy saw a slight decline as well.

For years, service chiefs and the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force did send condolence letters to the families, but, in most cases, the commander in chief didn’t.

But in his statement yesterday, President Obama said it’s time to change that policy, at least for those in combat zones. He said: “These Americans served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change.”

Military officials have long downplayed a direct correlation between war experiences and suicide.

COL. ELSPETH RITCHIE, U.S. Army: When you look at our suicides, about a third of them happen before somebody has deployed with no history of deployment, about a third happen during a deployment, and about a third in the year after they return home.

JEFFREY BROWN: But soldiers and Marines say that what they experience on the battlefield can have profound effects, both while they are there and after they return home.

SGT. JOHN EUBANKS, U.S. Marine Corps: I was big on the alcohol, ruined some relationships. Work suffered. And it took a while before I figured out that this was not good. And it took some intervention from some good friends of mine to tell me, hey, you have got to — you have got to get help and get going.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it hard for Marines to admit that they have this problem, because it feels like weakness?

SGT. JOHN EUBANKS: A little bit. A lot of it is you just don’t realize it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Army vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, responding to the president’s action, acknowledged this week that wars do inflict hidden damage.

He said in a blog post, “The persistent high-operational tempo, the terrible things some have seen or experienced in combat have undoubtedly taken a toll on them. Many are struggling with the invisible wounds, including traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.”

The new policy went into effect two days ago and is not retroactive.

And for more, we go to retired Army Gen. Ronald Griffith. He was Army vice chief of staff from 1995 to 1997. He’s now a consultant. And former 1st Lt. Paul Rieckhoff is the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group.

Paul Rieckhoff, I will start with you.

In what ways was this move by the president important? What was the problem it addresses?

1st LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: Well, I think it addresses the problem that soldiers were dying in the theater of combat, and they weren’t properly recognized by the president and by our nation.

So, you have got these folks who have taken their own lives in the line of duty. Last month, in the Army alone, there were 27 of them. And this recognizes their sacrifice. It recognizes their service. And it tells the families that they are appreciated by their president.

It’s a small step, but I think it, symbolically, is a big one, in that it can help erode the stigma, which is one of the biggest problems we face in combating these types of problems.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there has been a long-running debate over this, right? Was there a lot of pressure on the military and White House to make a move like this?

1st LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF: Yes, I think there was, I mean, from advocacy groups, from military family support groups.

It sounds like this has been in the works for some time. And folks like Gen. Chiarelli have been powerful advocates for the community. But we have to recognize that there is a much deeper, much bigger problem at the root here. The suicides that you mentioned are only really the tip of a much larger iceberg, because those are only the suicides that happen on active duty.

When folks come home, they leave the military, they detach from the Department of Defense, they become veterans. The number of veteran suicides, we see, is much higher anecdotally, but we don’t know. There’s no tracking mechanism right now for a veteran who has been out for six months or for five years and then takes his own life. So we need increased focus on that part of this equation as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me bring in Gen. Griffith.

Do you think this was a useful move? And have you seen a change in the thinking within the military about suicide and depression?

GEN. RONALD GRIFFITH, (RET.) U.S. Army: Well, I clearly have seen a great deal of concern on the part of the Army leadership in the last three or four years with regard to suicides.

There is clearly — and I go back to Gen. Chiarelli’s comments, which were given in part — another point that Gen. Chiarelli made in those same remarks was that the Army is tired. These soldiers, most particularly our combat arms soldiers, have been deployed, and redeployed, and redeployed again. And the tempo has just been extraordinary.

And the pressures of the combat environment are extreme. And, so, I think, clearly, we have seen in the latter part of these two conflicts, the latter years of these two conflicts the suicide rates go up. So, I think there’s no doubt that the combat environment, the deployments, the wear and tear on our people is a contributor. And I think that, when we do lose a soldier for the — any time we lose a soldier, it is unfortunate.

It is particularly unfortunate when one takes his own life or she takes her own life. And so, yes, I think it’s appropriate.

JEFFREY BROWN: And have you seen a growing awareness of this? You mention the leadership. What about at all ranks, middle and lower ranks, where these things are likely to take place, after all? Do you think there’s a better understanding of the pressures that you are talking about and Gen. Chiarelli is talking about?

GEN. RONALD GRIFFITH: I think, clearly, within the senior non-commissioned officer ranks, the officer ranks of the Army, there is a keen awareness of this.

There has been a lot of talk recently about — talk recently about resiliency training. We prepare our soldiers very well physically for the environments. We prepare them through training for the operational demands of the environment. And I think it’s important, as the Army is doing now, the psychological preparation of soldiers, the resiliency training that has become not only widely employed across the force, but also widely accepted, based on all the feedback I get at all levels of the Army.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Paul Rieckhoff, you are suggesting, though, that this is only a small step, doesn’t go far enough. It does only deal with suicides, for example, that take place in war zones. And the majority, as far as we know, I guess, take place when soldiers and Marines come back home.

1st LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF: That’s right. About two-thirds of the recent active-duty suicides have happened outside of combat theater. So this will, you know, only impact a small percentage of the overall group affected.

But I think this event, this change in policy, should serve as a wakeup call. We have a major problem in this country with suicides, both on active duty and in the veterans community. We’re losing a soldier every 36 hours to suicide. That is a major problem.

And, again, we’re not even tracking the 2.3 million veterans who have come home and have cycled out of the military since 9/11. We have thousands of members all across the country. And this is the issue

They come up to me and they say you have to talk about suicides. You have got to get us help.

This is a good step forward to reducing stigma, but we really need to galvanize the country. And the president can lead the way here on fully mobilizing people behind tackling suicide.

As an example, we have a critical shortage of qualified mental health care workers throughout the military, throughout the VA. The president can issue a national call to action to say, if you want to serve your country, be a qualified mental health care worker, go to school, become certified, or work at the DOD and VA.

That will help us reduce claims backlogs. That will help us get relief to the point of attack. It will give these folks the support and hope that they need, because we have been talking about this issue for going on five, six years. We’re going to be back on your program again, because this problem is going to continue to grow, unless we get immediate and really comprehensive approaches to tackling the larger problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Gen. Griffith, I mean, address that, because that stigma that he is talking about — and we saw it in that little clip where I was talking to the Marine — that stigma is real.

Everybody I have ever talked to — we have done many stories on this on the program — the stigma seems to be real. How do you get past that?

GEN. RONALD GRIFFITH: Oh, clearly, I think the stigma is real.

And I must, in candor, say that, when I first heard this announcement, I wasn’t completely sold that it was the right thing to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: In what ways? What were your concerns?

GEN. RONALD GRIFFITH: Well, because not every soldier who dies by suicide dies under honorable conditions. There have been circumstances where there have been suicides as a result of less-than-honorable actions on the parts of individuals.

After having been — made myself more informed on the issue, I think what we are doing is appropriate, because it does leave the latitude, as I understand the policy, for a field commander to recommend to the department, in this particular case, a letter from the president wouldn’t be appropriate.

So, it is not a wholesale matter, as I understand it. There are exceptions. And, again, I go back to my experiences in Vietnam. There were cases in Vietnam where I am aware of suicides that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the letters to go…

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about going the further step, which is to that majority of suicides and, of course, all the depression out there, that take place outside of the war zone?

GEN. RONALD GRIFFITH: Well, I clearly think that, again, if it takes place while a soldier is on active duty, the commander needs to have input and make a recommendation as to whether such would be appropriate or not for the president to send a letter.

I think, also, most of these soldiers certainly coming out — or should be — if they are not, they — if they are not, they should be within the Veterans Administration system. And so there’s monitoring that goes on in that fora that I think also informs.

And I agree that, if it is a result of the trauma of combat, that it is fully appropriate for the president to recognize that and acknowledge it with a — with a letter to the family.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a brief last word, Paul Rieckhoff. You are saying we still have a long way to go to get there, right?

1st LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF: We have a huge way to go.

And these folks are coming home to the toughest economy in decades. They’re coming home to roughly 20 percent unemployment. That is what we see in our membership. And roughly one-fourth, one-third are coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression.

I’m meeting folks who are doing five, six, seven tours. So Gen. Chiarelli is right. They’re tired. But we need to mobilize the entire country behind really supporting them, because I’m not seeing it in the field nationwide when these folks are coming home. It’s really patchwork. And we have a long way to go before we can see that number start to decline.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Paul Rieckhoff and Gen. Ronald Griffith, thank you both very much.

GEN. RONALD GRIFFITH: Thank you very much.

1st LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF: Thank you, sir.