… But the White House got this right:
Statement by the President on Change of Condolence Letter Policy
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. 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.
As a next step and in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the military chain of command, I have also decided to reverse a long-standing policy of not sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone. This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly. This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but 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. 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.
I note two things about the change in policy with regard to condolence letters sent to the families of military suicides. First, it’s limited to “the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone.” This, of course, means that the family of a service member who commits suicide outside a combat zone – say, an individual who makes it home alive but was so traumatized by the experiences of war that he or she commits suicide back here – does not qualify. And the problem is, mental health issues related to or caused by war don’t always manifest themselves while a soldier or marine is in a combat theater, and so many, many veterans fall into that latter category.
Last November, Tammy Duckworth, the Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, appeared on CNN (video) to discuss the epidemic of suicides among active duty military personnel and veterans … and the numbers are staggering: A reported 6,000 military suicides occur every year. That’s 18 military suicides per day. Quite obviously, the vast majority of those suicides occur at home, and may even occur many years after the individual is discharged.
Such was the case with Marine veteran Clay Hunt, himself a tireless advocate for fellow veterans suffering from mental health issues, who took his own life on March 31, 2011. From the Houston Chronicle, on April 9, 2011 (sadly for me, the 20th anniversary of my own brother’s suicide):
The 28-year-old [Hunt] had narrowly escaped death in Iraq four years ago, when a sniper’s bullet missed his head by inches. But he wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt over the deaths of four friends in his platoon who weren’t so lucky.
Hunt’s suicide was baffling to friends and family, but not because he hid his struggle or failed to get help. It baffled them because he faced it, head-on, leading from the front like any good Marine.
Hunt had become a poster boy for suicide prevention. He appeared in an award-winning public service campaign to encourage returning veterans who feel isolated to reach out to their peers for help.
“He tried everything,” said his best friend Jake Wood, a fellow Marine. “He tried the medication, he tried (humanitarian) service, he tried moving back closer to family. He tried everything under the sun, and he was fully self-aware. I think that’s what kind of surprised everybody. We thought that Clay was taking the steps to try and avoid something like this. It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t able to.”
And so there’s the irony of a case like Hunt’s: He did everything right. He did everything he could heal the mental wounds he suffered while deployed to a combat zone, but roughly two years after being discharged, he lost that battle and succumbed to those wounds at home in Texas. As a consequence, his death falls outside the new policy the White House announced today.
The second thing I note about the Administration’s new condolence letter policy is related to the first: As the President says, “the fact that [these suicide victims] didn’t get the help they needed must change.” Yes. It must. Not just for people currently deployed in combat, but to every last veteran of every war who happens to be suffering from these kinds of wounds.
Six thousand military suicides a year. Eighteen military suicides every day. That’s completely unacceptable.
So, yes, the new policy, as imperfect as it is, it’s a step in the right direction. Honestly, I do not understand why it took Pres. Obama more than two years to change the policy, but at least he finally did so. It does not cover all the people who should be covered, because everyone who struggles with the mental wounds caused by war and who ultimately loses that struggle is a casualty of war itself; but it does do an important thing: It treats those mental wounds as the very real wounds they are.
And for that, Pres. Obama deserves thanks.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.