In a break with longstanding tradition, the president will now send condolence letters to families of those service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone, the White House announced on Wednesday.
In a statement released by the White House, President Obama said the decision was made “after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly.”
The policy change signifies a new understanding of the wounds of war, some of which are mental. “They didn’t die because they were weak,” Obama said.
There was no mention of letters to the families of service members who commit suicide after they’ve returned home.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, who has been vocal in addressing the military's "invisible wounds" of war, said the policy change is a step toward removing the stigma associated with behavioral health conditions.
"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," Chiarelli said in a statement.
Chiarelli also recounted his personal connection to suicide. The general, who commanded the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2004-05, lost 169 soldiers while deployed. Chiarelli approved the monument erected in memoriam at Fort Hood, Texas, but only 168 soldiers' names were listed.
"I approved the request of others not to include the name of the one soldier who committed suicide. I deeply regret my decision," Chiarelli said, calling the decision the "greatest regret" of his military career.
According to an Army report released in 2010, 160 soldiers killed themselves in 2009, and the suicide rate reached 20.2 per 100,000, up from about 10 per 100,000 since 2004. The rate for the Marine Corps was the highest of the armed forces at nearly 22 per 100,000. The Air Force and Navy rates were around 12 per 100,000; the civilian rate is typically around 19.2 per 100,000.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit that serves the families of military service members, applauded the president's decision but said in a statement that the administration did not go far enough in adjusting its condolence-letter policy.
"While expanding the policy today to include the families of those who die by suicide in combat zones is a very important step that TAPS supports, the White House presidential condolence letter policy continues to exclude many families who have made the ultimate sacrifice in military service to America," the statement said.
In an interview with National Journal published last month, Chiarelli said the Army was making strides in addressing the issue of suicide.
"I definitely think that we have made progress, but we’re fighting an uphill battle. The underlying cause, the stress on the force, the things that are causing the stress on the force, still remain when you have operational-tempo levels that are at what they are right now, especially after 10 years of conflict," Chiarelli said.
This article appears in the July 6, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.