President Reverses Policy on Condolence Letters

BY Jason Kane and Daniel Sagalyn  July 6, 2011 at 5:45 PM EST


Soldiers in Afghanistan. Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images.

President Obama will begin sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide in combat zones, he announced Wednesday.

The decision reverses a longstanding policy that had been implemented based on fears in some military circles that recognizing such deaths would encourage more suicides. The president made the decision “after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly,” he said in a White House press release.

“This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely,” the president wrote. “They didn’t die because they were weak.”

The condolence letters will be sent to the families of service members who have committed suicide in Iraq, Afghanistan and several other locations that qualify as combat areas. The decision does not affect those who take their own life in non-combat situations or outside of war zones.

The president acknowledged that more needs to be done to support the mental health of military personnel.

“The fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change,” he said. “Our men and women in uniform have borne the incredible burden of our wars, and we need to do everything in our power to honor their service, and to help them stay strong for themselves, for their families and for our nation.”

Until Wednesday, Defense Department officials have rejected or played down any connection between the rising number of suicides among service members and the trauma and stress soldiers experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in a sign that this view may be changing, Vice Chief of Staff for the Army General Peter W. Chiarelli commended the president and offered some of the strongest language yet from a military official that a connection exists between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from combat and the rising suicide levels.

In a blog posted on the White House website, he wrote “the persistent high operational tempo of this war, the terrible things some have seen or experienced in combat, have undoubtedly taken a toll on them. Many are struggling with the ‘invisible wounds’ of this war, including traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety,” he wrote. “Any attempt to characterize these individuals as somehow weaker than others is simply misguided.”

Veterans’ advocates hailed the White House’s change in policy. Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense wrote in an email to the NewsHour that President Obama was ending the “discrimination and stigma against our troops…with a single stroke of his pen,” and that “the new White House policy recognizes decades of established scientific evidence confirming the link between deployment to a war zone and post traumatic stress disorder. Untreated PTSD can lead to increased risk of suicide.”

Some officials in the Pentagon appeared to have been caught by surprise by the White House statement. According to a Defense Department official, a hastily arranged meeting took place this afternoon with all the vice chiefs of staff of the services and other senior officials to discuss how to implement this policy and what its implications will be.

The flurry of activity marks a victory for the families that have been pushing the government for years to issue the condolence letters. This spring, they were joined by 11 senators who wrote to President Obama, asking him to change the policy and reminding him of some grim statistics: Between 2005 and 2009 more than 1,100 members of the military took their own lives. That’s an average of 1 suicide every 36 hours.

“Unfortunately, perpetuating a policy that denies condolence letters to families of service members who die by suicide only serves to reinforce this stigma,” they wrote.

In fiscal year 2009 alone, the U.S. Army reported 160 active duty suicide deaths and 1,713 attempted suicides.

Another veterans’ group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, applauded the move but demanded more.

“The White House still needs to redouble its resolve to address the root of this suicide epidemic. Our nation has a huge, rapidly growing military and veteran suicide problem–and the President must do much more to tackle it head-on,” the statement said. “What our community needs are substantial resources and a real push that prevents suicide, not just letters after the fact. The best way to honor the legacy of those we have lost is to ensure that no one else’s son or daughter becomes a statistic.”

More coverage from the NewsHour:

Military, VA Confront Rising Suicide Rates Among Troops

Rules Change for Vets’ PTSD Benefits

Fort Hood Program Seeks Better Care for Vets