A new White House policy to send condolence letters to the family of troops who go to war and commit suicide excludes the vast majority of those soldiers and their families, undercutting President Obama’s stated effort to defray the stigma associated with mental health problems from combat. The loophole has also disappointed veteran advocates.
President Obama inherited a policy to send condolence letters only to soldiers killed in action, but not those who commit suicide. The White House says that has now changed. “The President ordered a review of a long-held administration policy of not sending condolence letters to the next of kin of service members who commit suicide,” the White House said in a statement sent to TIME.
“As a result of this review, the President has decided to change the administration’s policy and will now send condolence letters to families of service members that commit suicide while deployed to Operation New Dawn (OND), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and other combat operations.” The statement said the change in policy is designed to “destigmatize the mental health costs of war to prevent these tragic deaths, and changing this policy is part of that process.”
The words “while deployed” are the problem. That means only a fraction of the troops who commit suicide after combat will get those letters. “This is a nice step, but it really impacts a small number of the people committing suicide,” said a disappointed Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
An Army study on suicides between 2005 and 2009 showed that nearly 73 percent of the suicides among active duty troops occurred in the United States, not in Iraq or Afghanistan. Around 70 percent of those troops who committed suicide had deployed to war.
Those data also exclude troops who commit suicide after leaving the military — an unknown but potentially very large number.
That’s not surprising, since the term post-traumatic stress disorder includes the word “post.” The anxiety, paranoia, nightmares, insomnia, and suicidal and homicidal urges common among combat veterans often do not come into full bloom until months after they return from war. “Most of the suicides we see are among people who have been home for six months,” noted Rieckhoff.
The White House policy seems half-baked, so maybe it will change. A contact at the National Security Council said there was no policy yet on how to implement the decision. That person referred questions to the Pentagon. Email there has so far gone unanswered.