WASHINGTON — Breaking with a long-standing unwritten policy, President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he will now send condolence letters to families of military service members who commit suicide or die of an accident in a combat zone.
“This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely,” Obama said of the suicide deaths in a statement. “They didn’t die because they are weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change.”
The White House said the decision to alter the long-standing practice of honoring only combat deaths came after “a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy.” The condolence letter policy is an emotionally charged one, especially for surviving family members who say it has left them feeling that their sacrifice is somehow less significant.
Connie Scott, a volunteer in military suicide support groups, said it would be a comfort for those grieving family members who are covered.
Her son, Army Pfc. Brian Matthew Williams, took his life the day before he was supposed to return to Iraq in 2007. But because he did not die in a combat zone, Scott’s family would not receive a letter under the new policy.
“It absolutely would have meant a lot to me at that time to have known that Brian was respected and that his death mattered to other people,” she said. Suicide is a growing problem for the U.S. military. Some 271 service members killed themselves in 2010, up from 151 a decade earlier. A third of those deaths occurred in combat zones.
“We suffered a loss too,” she said. “I’m grateful for this step, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Troop family support groups and mental health advocates applauded the policy change.
“This is an important step that can help eliminate the stigma associated with suicide and provide valuable emotional support to families,” said Dr. David Shern, president and CEO of Mental Health America, one of several groups that started a petition campaign to change the policy.
But the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a peer-based support group for military families, criticized the decision to draw a line between families of service members who die on foreign and U.S. soil. “For families, that does not go unnoticed and is often hurtful” it said.
The Obama administration stressed the importance of promoting mental health resources in the armed services.