There is No Presidential Condolence if a Soldier Commits Suicide
If an American soldier is wounded and then dies or is killed immediately in Iraq or Afghanistan, the President of the United States and The Secretary of Defense write a condolence letter to the family. However, if an American soldier is wounded physically and /or psychologically during his action in Iraq or Afghanistan and then commits suicide there is no letter of condolence written to his or her family by the President and the Secretary of Defense.
There are now more suicides among our combat troops than all those killed by enemy fire in Iraq and Afghanistan together according to a recent CNN Report on this topic. There have been 354 suicides thus far in the year 2009 which is more than the 335 total of combat deaths which occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan combined . While most of the suicides don’t occur until the soldiers have returned to the states at least one third have taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US Army and the National Institute of Mental Health are partnering to assess risk and resilience in service members in an epidemiologic study of mental health, psychological resilience, suicide risk, suicide-related behaviors, and suicide deaths. While this is quite important, it does not address the failure of our leaders to knowledge the sacrifice of those psychologically injured soldiers who commit suicide. This is a serious defect in our moral fabric.
While Presidents since Lincoln have been writing letters of condolence to families, there is apparently unwritten policy that this does not include families of soldiers who have committed suicide. It is easy to imagine how hurtful that must be to a family who is burying a son or daughter who came back from war with psychological problems and then committed suicide or perhaps killed themselves while still overseas. The New York Times recently wrote a story about one such family. After Gregg and Janet Keesling’s son, Chancellor, killed himself in Iraq in June, the family received a folded flag, a letter from the Army praising their son, a 21-gun salute at his burial and financial death benefits, but not a letter of condolence from President Obama.
A spokesperson for President Obama said that the policy in regard to who should receive a letter of condolence is currently undergoing a review.
What is Going on Here?
I heard one report state that many soldiers would feel that their comrades combat death would be somehow demeaned if the families of soldiers who suicided were given an equal letter of condolence. Another view is that treating suicide the same as other war deaths might encourage mentally frail soldiers to take their lives by making the act seem honorable. These ideas may be influencing the thinking of some our military leaders and perhaps the President. I hope not.
If this is the case it is misguided thinking which resurrects the stigmatization of mental illness. These conditions are not something that anyone chooses to have. This includes depression, post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury all of which can be secondary to combat experiences. Soldiers cannot will themselves to avoid these conditions anymore than a soldier can avoid a bullet aimed at their head or an explosive device that goes off under their vehicle. While training and good support can reduce the odds somewhat but once you are in a combat zone you are vulnerable to injury. I also know of no evidence that people on the verge of suicide would be driven to do it because their family would get a letter of condolence.
There is a famous cartoon which shows a therapist giving a patient a large slap in the face while saying “Snap out of it” and the title of the cartoon is “One Session Therapy”. If there is humor in this, it is because some people have the phantasy that it is that easy to put aside psychological injury. Anyone with knowledge about mental illness and clinical experience knows that it is not true.
A soldier who suffers to the point of ending his or her own life, has to be recognized as someone who has suffered as much as anyone can imagine.
As far as the idea that some deaths deserve a letter of condolence and some don’t, consider this. If a soldier in Iraq is working in the kitchen and the stove catches fire leading to his demise, would this death be any less deserving of a letter of condolence than a soldier who was caught in an enemy ambush? Would the loss be any less deserving of the latter soldier if it turned out that he made a foolish tactical error leading to his being killed as compared to someone who was brave enough to fall on a grenade to save others lives? Of course not. Similarly, would you compare a soldier who faced many horrific combat situations and developed PTSD with another soldier who became severely depressed shortly after his plane just touched down in the combat zone if both ended up having intolerable suicidal feelings which led to their death? Would one family be deserving of a letter of condolence and another not? I don’t believe that we judge some soldiers deaths as being more worthy than others.
Yes, we do give out special medals and recognition for unusual acts of bravery but these in no way diminish the sacrifice that others have made.
All of the soldiers that we have discussed above would have volunteered to serve in the military and today everyone knows that this most likely could mean exposure to combat. For this they deserve our thanks and when they and their families have made the supreme sacrifice they deserve at least a letter of condolence.
Action to Fix This Situation
What can we do to see that the families of soldiers who have suicided be given the same letter of condolence as families of other soldiers who have died in the military?
We can a write a letter to the President of the United States, Secretary of Defense and our Congressperson and US Senator. Those of you who are mental health professionals should clearly state this in such correspondence and explain how you feel about this situation especially based on your understanding of mental illness. The email address to write to the President is : firstname.lastname@example.org There is every indication your email would be read by his staff and a sample of them are often shown to the President. If many of the readers of this blog were to write him a note it is bound to make an impression as this issue is under consideration by the President at present. If you would like some tips on how to write to the President I found this brief article .
We should also ask our professional organizations if they have not done so already to weigh in on this matter. I am writing a letter to my colleague Dr. Alan Schatzberg, President of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), requesting him to consider asking the Board of Trustees to pass such a resolution if this has already not been done. This last November I finished my term as Past Speaker of the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association and left the Assembly. So while I cannot sponsor such a resolution myself anymore, I will ask my former colleagues there to also consider doing so . Both the Board of Trustees and the Assembly must approve position statements in the APA. I would hope that once this organization takes it on they will be able enlist the support of our colleagues in the American Medical Association as well as other professional groups.
By all indications President Obama is a compassionate person and I believe that once he has the facts and has heard from the public including mental health professionals, he will do the right thing.
I welcome your comments on this issue.