Reversing longstanding policy, the Obama administration will start sending condolence letters to the families of troops who commit suicide while in a combat zone.
The change comes more than 18 months after the White House began a review of the practice of withholding condolence letters to families of service members who kill themselves while deployed. It also comes on the heels of a May letter, signed by 11 U.S. senators, including Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, that urged a reversal of the policy.
“This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “This issue is emotional, painful and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak.”
It has been a long-standing practice of the President to send condolence letters to the families of those who are killed in the line of duty. Family members of troops who killed themselves in the war zone have said they were offended that their loved ones were not recognized by the White House for their service.
“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 his statement. “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.”
In their letter to Obama, the senators had said it was “long past time to overturn this hurtful policy,” noting that the suicide rate among active duty service members had climbed “due to the stresses of nearly 10 years of continuous combat operations.”
The letter cited 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.
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.