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Sat., July 9, 2011

Editorial: Presidential condolences to families after military suicide appropriate

The families of U.S. service members who take their own lives in Iraq and Afghanistan will now receive letters of condolence from the president and secretary of defense.

A shame that it took so long.

All military families deserve recognition for the sacrifices they make when their sons or daughters, husbands or wives are deployed. Their fellow Americans have sacrificed nothing.

But the toll for too many families does not end there.

More than 6,100 of those American soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen have not returned home from the Mideast conflicts. The vast majority were victims of enemy action: small-arms fire, roadside bombs, mortars.

But many succumbed to despair, the inability to cope with personal problems half a world away, or the universe of destruction around them. They killed themselves.

Many more do so when they return home when they cannot shake the trauma and the stress they hoped to leave behind. In the Spokane area, 27 veteran deaths were suicides in the three-year period starting with 2007.

Finally awakened to the magnitude of the problem, the military has increased its outreach to troubled soldiers, and augmented the available services.

Military and Veterans Administration officials have worked hard to remove the stigma from seeking treatment for the underlying causes of suicide, an effort that has gone all the way up to the Oval Office.

But the battlefield remains the battlefield, where suicide may betray the bonds between soldiers and compromise the safety of their units. Those men and women, and their immediate commanders, are better positioned than anyone else to pass judgment on their comrade’s frailty.

In announcing the change in longtime policy regarding condolences, President Barack Obama said those who commit suicide did not die because they were weak, but because they did not get the help they needed. They served, and they died.

Critics worry that a presidential letter of condolence for their families might somehow comfort or incent those on the verge of self-destruction. Others fear the president and secretary might not distinguish between those killed in combat and those killed by their own hand, thereby equating one with the other.

In fact, all the families deserve an equal measure of compassion. Those whose sons, daughters or spouses died in combat will take an extra measure of pride in their service. Families without that solace need not be reminded by the absence of a few words of comfort from the president.

With American forces withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, the less often he writes any such letters, the better.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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