May 26, 2011

Senators: Recognize Families Of Troops Who Commit Suicide

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A group of senators, including Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, is asking President Obama to start sending condolence letters to families of U.S. service members who kill themselves, in what would be a reversal of long-standing policy.

In a letter to Obama, eleven senators, including Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Richard Burr, R-N.C, co-chairs of the Senate Military Family Caucus, urged the administration to take “immediate steps” to reverse the policy of withholding Presidential letters of condolence to families of troops who die by suicide, saying that a review of the policy initiated in December 2009 has dragged on too long.

“It is long past time to overturn this hurtful policy,” the senators said. “As you well know, the incidence of suicide among our service men and women has reached epidemic levels due to the stresses of nearly 10 years of continuous combat operations.”

The letter cites an August 2010 report by a suicide-prevention task force that found that more than 1,100 members of the Armed Forces had killed themselves between 2005 and 2009. More than 225 service members have killed themselves while deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to May military reports on confirmed casualties.

The military has taken numerous steps to try to stem suicides, including improving mental health screening and treatment and trying to reduce the stigma of psychological problems.

“Unfortunately, perpetuating a policy that denies condolence letters to families of service members who die by suicide only serves to reinforce this stigma by overshadowing the contributions of an individual’s life with the unfortunate nature of his or her death,” the letter says.  “In addition, it further alienates families who are already struggling to cope with the death of a loved one.

“It is simply unacceptable for the United States to be sending the message to these families that somehow their loved ones’ sacrifices are less important.”

Last October, the American Psychiatric Association made a similar appeal to Obama to reverse the condolence letter restriction.

Families of troops whose deaths have been ruled suicides said the absence of a condolence letter is painful.

“This practice needs to change,” said Warren Henthorn of Oklahoma, whose son, Jeffrey, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2005 while he was serving a second tour in Iraq.

“Jeffrey served six years in the Oklahoma Army National Guard, helped many people in this state, nearly two years in the regular Army, completing one tour in Iraq—and no honor has been given for nearly 8 years of service because of the method of his death… The stigma goes on in many ways and should change now.”

Paul Sullivan executive director of the advocacy group, Veterans for Common Sense, applauded the senators’ intervention.

“Today, with one stroke of his pen, President Obama can reduce discrimination against our service members and veterans diagnosed with mental health conditions,” Sullivan said.  “He can fight stigma right now by sending condolence letters.”

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