Until today, if a military service member committed suicide while deployed to a combat zone, his or her next of kin could not expect to receive a letter of condolence. Now, however, the Obama administration is reversing the policy, after a group of senators asked Obama to change the “insensitive” White House policy. In his statement, Obama said that the reversal was part of his commitment to “removing the stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war.”
Families of service members who committed suicide while serving were understandably upset when the sacrifices made by the deceased were not formally recognized by the military, as they would be if a service member was killed in combat. In 2009, Army Spc. Chancellor Keesling killed himself while deployed to Iraq, and his family began to speak out about what they saw as the prevailing view in the military: that many “consider suicide a dishonorable way to die.”
They were disturbed by the implication that suicide was not a serious issue, when in fact, the suicide rate is rising steadily within the branches of the military most involved in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Between 2004 and 2009, the suicide rate in the Army and Marine Corps passed the national average.
Clearly, something has to give. Instead of treating suicide like a shameful death, the military needs to address the mental health issues plaguing the people who are serving the United States in combat, and help them avoid this tragic, desperate decision.
“This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely,” said Obama. “They didn’t die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change.”
Bravo to the Obama administration for changing this offensive policy. Let’s hope that this is just the first step in a larger campaign to destigmatize mental health issues in the military.
Photo from soldiersmediacenter via flickr.