WASHINGTON, July 6, 2011 — President Barack Obama and Defense Department officials will send condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide in a war zone. The change is in keeping with administration efforts to remove the stigma of mental health treatment, an administration official said on background.
The president last year ordered a review of the long-held policy of not sending condolence letters to the next of kin of those who commit suicide in war zones. White House officials yesterday announced the policy change allowing for condolence letters to be sent. The president made his decision after consulting with the defense secretary and members of the military chain of command.
“As commander in chief, I am deeply grateful for the service of all our men and women in uniform, and grieve for the loss of those who suffer from the wounds of war — seen and unseen,” Obama said in a statement released this morning. “Since taking office, I’ve been committed to removing the stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war, which is why I’ve worked to expand our mental health budgets, and ensure that all our men and women in uniform receive the care they need.”
Defense leaders will follow the president’s lead. “The administration will now send condolence letters to families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to Operation New Dawn, Operation Enduring Freedom and other combat operations,” Pentagon spokesman Marine Col. Dave Lapan said.
“This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely,” Obama said in his statement. “They didn’t die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change.”
U.S. service members have borne an incredible burden of war, Obama said. “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,” he said.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has long favored sending condolence letters to the next of kin of those who committed suicide, a Joint Staff official said on background.
Other military leaders also spoke in favor of the decision, including Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli. In a blog posting on the White House site, the general said the greatest regret of his military career was not recognizing the sacrifice of a soldier in Iraq.
Chiarelli commanded the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. “I lost 169 soldiers during that year-long deployment,” he wrote in the blog. “However, the monument we erected at Fort Hood, Texas, in memoriam lists 168 names. I approved the request of others not to include the name of the one soldier who committed suicide. I deeply regret my decision.”
Service members are tired and stretched, Chiarelli said. “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,” he said. “Many are struggling with the ‘invisible wounds’ of this war, including traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. Any attempt to characterize these individuals as somehow weaker than others is simply misguided.”
Even with leaders’ emphasis on getting mental health help, a stigma persists, Chiarelli said. “We remain committed to raising awareness, helping individuals increase their resiliency while ensuring they have access to the right support services and resources,” he said. “That said, if we hope to truly have an impact, we must continue to do everything we can to eliminate the stigma.”
The president’s decision acknowledges that the service rendered by these individuals, as well as the service and sacrifices made by their family, deserve the same recognition given to those men and women who die as a result of enemy action, Chiarelli said.
“Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly a decade ago, over 6,000 men and women have paid the ultimate price for freedom,” he said. “Every day we have honored those fallen in combat. Now, in accordance with our commander in chief, we will honor all those who have fallen in service to our great nation.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)