White House Reverses Policy on Suicide Condolence Letters

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)

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