There used to be a White House policy that banned sending condolence letters to families of military veterans who commit suicide. That changed yesterday when the Obama administration revoked the crass custom and released a statement explaining that he will begin to send out letters to the next-of-kin of service members regardless of their cause of death.
Eleven Senators lobbied for a few weeks to have the policy reversed, but military families have been protesting the policy for years -- it dates back to many administrations prior to Obama's.
I love what Obama had to say about the change:
This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated. But these Americans served our nation bravely ... we need to do everything in our power to honor their service, and to help them stay strong for themselves, for their families, and for our nation.
Right on. I'm embarrassed to say that I had no idea, until today, that there was an asterisk associated with the condolence letters that went something like: *send to all families except to those whose son or daughter committed suicide -- those don't count.
That policy was shameful, but the good news is that it exists no more. The presidential statement went on to say that it's terrible these service members who took their own lives didn't get the help they needed, and that that must change, too.
NPR reported last year that nearly as many vets have committed suicide in 2009 as died in combat in Afghanistan. I was shocked when I read that. The suicide rate among military vets was at its highest last year, but is now back to below 2004 rates, which is below or at the national average when compared to civilian suicides.
I would assume, like most people, that veteran suicides are more often than not because of the war ... the terrible things they saw, the terrible things they were forced to do ... it cannot be easy to bear. And the fact that our government couldn't send a condolence letter to their families was bitterly caustic. They're just as much victims of war as the men and women who died on the battlefield.
The policy reversal is a win for military families and a win for the de-stigmatization of mental health issues. As mental health issues become easier to talk about and as more and more vets get the outlet and help they need after returning from war, hopefully there will be fewer suicides, but now, at least, there will be a letter.
What do you think?
Photo via US Army/Flickr