Controversy Grows over Obama’s Military Suicide Condolence Letters

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Some veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their families are vexed by the seemingly arbitrary, location-based limits of a new White House policy to use condolence letters to acknowledge military suicides as legitimate casualties of war.

The disappointment is particularly palpable among family of troops who committed suicide after returning to the United States from combat. Those deaths will not be acknowledged under the new White House policy no matter how clear the connection seems between a suicide and the mental ravages of war. “We have felt from the day he died that he should be counted as a casualty of war,” said Susan Selke, whose son, Clay Hunt, took his own life March 31 after his second combat tour.

Although Hunt, who was 28, received a Purple Heart, had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and suffered greatly from his war-time experiences, his death is not the kind the White House would honor with a letter under the new policy. That’s because Hunt shot himself in Sugar Land, Texas instead of Afghanistan or Iraq. “If the goal is to take away the stigma of mental health problems, then it is critical that they include the ones who have committed suicide once they get out,” Selke said.

The White House July 6 announced that the president would reverse long-standing policy and begin to send condolence letters to the family of some troops who deploy to war zones and then commit suicide. President Obama said the new policy is part of a commitment to remove the “stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war.” Obama added that service members who committed suicide “didn’t die because they were weak.”

But Obama said those letters would only go out to “the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone.”

The “while deployed” is the catch. Take Army suicides as an example. Between 2005 and 2009, nearly 73 percent of soldiers who committed suicide took their own lives in the United States, not in Iraq or Afghanistan. And around 70 percent of those troops who committed suicide had deployed to war.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a program to support service members’ families, “applauded” the new White House policy in a July 6 statement. The group added, however, that, “Approximately two-thirds of suicides by military service members occur outside combat zones.” TAPS said that though well-intentioned, the policy makes a distinction between “the value of the life and service” of troops based arbitrarily on where they die.

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted the problem within hours of the White House announcement. “Most of the suicides we see are among people who have been home for six months,” he told TIME.

That’s because of the “post” in post-traumatic stress disorder.  The explosive homicidal and suicidal thoughts, insomnia, depression and anxiety from combat often don’t come into full bloom for months after a combat tour.

Hunt, a Marine sniper, suffered from these kinds of symptoms for two years after he returned from Afghanistan on his second combat deployment. Selke, his mother, believes there should be some method of tracking the number of troops now out of uniform but who were clearly suffering from war’s mental fallout when they committed suicide. As of now, that number is unknown, but potentially huge. “I think the American people need to know how many people we have really lost as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. Selke said the president could start by sending the right message with condolence letters to troops, even if they die in Sugar Land, Texas.

“If he is going to take this step, he is taking it half way,” she said about the new policy. “We just need to not go half way.”