Reversing long policy, Obama White House will now send condolences to families of military suicides
Wednesday 6 July 2011
Official: White House to lift
ban on military
by Dan Lothian, White House Correspondent
Official: Move applies to families of deployed service members who commit suicide
Decision will help end "stigma" of wars' mental health toll, official says in statement
Senators, family of a deceased soldier had asked president to reverse the policy
Army report showed a steady rise in 2004-2009 Army and Marine suicide rates
(CNN) -- The Obama administration has reversed a White House policy of not sending condolence letters to the next-of-kin of service members who commit suicide, a senior administration official confirmed in a statement to CNN.
The move comes nearly six weeks after a group of senators -- 10 Democrats and one Republican -- asked President Barack Obama to change what they called an "insensitive" policy that dates back several administrations and has been the subject of protest by some military families.
In the statement Tuesday, the White House official said a review had been completed, and the president will send condolence letters to families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat operations.
"The president feels strongly that we need to destigmatize the mental health costs of war to prevent these tragic deaths, and changing this policy is part of that process," the official's statement said.
"Unfortunately, perpetuating a policy that denies condolence letters to families of service members who die by suicide only serves to reinforce this stigma by overshadowing the contributions of an individual's life with the unfortunate nature of his or her death. It is simply unacceptable for the United States to be sending the message to these families that somehow their loved ones' sacrifices are less important."
CNN first reported in 2009 about the family of Army Spc. Chancellor Keesling, who killed himself while serving in Iraq.
The family set up a wall to pay tribute to Keesling in their Indiana home. Along with his uniform and the flag from his burial service, a space was left for the expected condolence letter from the commander in chief.
Upset when they learned a suicide did not merit a letter from the president, Keesling's father, Gregg, wrote to the president and the Army chief of staff requesting the policy be changed. He argued that his son's suicide was a result of what he was exposed to during war and that it deserved to be considered caused by battle.
According to an Army report last year, annual suicide rates in the Marine Corps and the Army -- the two branches most involved in combat operations in Iraq and Afganistan -- increased steadily between 2004 and 2009, to more than 20 per 100,000 people. During that time the rate for those two branches surpassed the age-adjusted, national civilian average, whereas suicide rates for the Air Force and Navy stayed below the national average.
In 2001, the suicide rate among Marines, like the Air Force and Navy, was about half the civilian rate, and the Army's, while higher than the other three branches, was still below the civilian rate, according to the Army report.
CNN's Adam Levine contributed to this report.