Battleland

Inside the White House Struggle with Condolence Letters and Suicides

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White House aides emphasized Friday that President Obama’s announcement this week to send condolence letters to some troops who commit suicide was designed to patch a hole in a policy President Obama inherited. It’s part of a broader effort to recognize and address the common mental wounds of war, but it is also starting to feel to some White House aides like a case of no good deed going unpunished.

“When we took office, we inherited a condolence letter policy that sent letters to the next of kin of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but specifically exempted those who committed suicide,” explained Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman.

That seemed unfair, aides thought, and only further contributed to the stigma surrounding mental wounds. “We didn’t think that made sense, and so the President worked through a difficult review process to change the policy in an effort to destigmatize the mental costs of war,” Vietor explained.

President Obama announced on Wednesday that he would revoke that ban and begin to send letters to the family of troops who commit suicide in war zones, along with all the other deaths. Obama called it symbolic of White House efforts aimed at “removing the stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war.”

The problem the White House has run into is that most military suicides don’t occur when troops are deployed, but after they return, when the insidious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems begin to emerge. In the Army, for example, nearly 73 percent of soldiers who have 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.

“Post-traumatic stress is after the fact,” said Katie Bagosy, whose husband, Marine Sgt. Tom Bagosy, committed suicide at Camp Lejeune six months after a 2009 Afghanistan combat tour. His death seemed very clearly related to his combat stress.

The revamped White House condolence letter policy now addresses suicides – but still only applies to deaths that occur among deployed troops. Bagosy’s death, for example, would not qualify for a condolence letter. “This is a slap in the face,” said Katie Bagosy.

White House aides say they long ago recognized this problem, but struggled with how to broaden the policy to cover those deaths. How would they determine a stateside suicide was related to a deployment? How would they track all those deaths? What if a service member was no longer in uniform?

(This argument works the other way as well. If an Air Force cook in bankruptcy proceedings kills himself fifteen minutes after setting foot at Bagram Airfield, his family gets a letter, but Katie Bagosy does not?)

Aides explain that all that debate didn’t seem like a good excuse to not at least fix the suicide exemption in the current condolence letter policy for deployed troops. White House sources also emphasize that the military does have the authority to request a condolence letter from the White House for a suicide that occurs in the United States.

Despite all that, the White House seems taken back with the backlash from Wednesday’s announcement. It also seems like this pickle could have been anticipated.  Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted the problem within hours of the White House announcement on Wednesday. “Most of the suicides we see are among people who have been home for six months,” he told TIME.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a program to support service members’ families, also quickly noted 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 on “the value of the life and service” of troops based arbitrarily on where they die.

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