Military Suicides: The Families Left Behind

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In the recent swirl of articles and blogs about the new Presidential policy on honoring those who suicide in combat with a condolence letter, there are some who may be lost: the Families. The controversy seems to be about whether or not you should “honor” the Soldier who died with a letter of condolence. Recently the White House has decided that President Obama should do it, but then only for those who suicided in theater.

What is often forgotten are the families. In my experience, families of suicides are doubly devastated, first by the death and then by the guilt. “How could I have prevented it? What did I do wrong?” They often feel very isolated. Few public condolences. Their loved member is not considered a hero, but, at best, one who did a selfish act, or more often, a disgrace.

In my last blog, I talked of other stigmatizing policies. I did not even mention the one above.  But since it has come up, here are a couple of others, relevant to suicide.

In the past, when a Soldier died by suicide, it was up to the local commander as to whether he received a “ramp ceremony”. This is a formal ceremony, where the deceased is loaded onto the ramp of a military plane.

Fortunately, I believe, now the “ramp ceremony” is now standard, due to the Army’s recent review, under the leadership of General Peter Chiarelli, the Vice Chief of Staff. I do not know the policies of the other Services.

Perhaps more importantly, the Army has a procedure of determining whether the death was in the line of duty. In the event of a suicide, a psychiatrist has to opine whether the deceased was “of sound mind”. If yes, no death benefits. If no, if the deceased was “of unsound mind”, then the family can receive the death benefits.

That was a policy I tried mightily to change when I was on active duty. For one thing there is not any clear definition of what is meant by “sound” or “unsound” mind.

I often received appeal packets where the same standards that we use for criminal responsibility are applied to the deceased. Usually I reversed them; for me, Soldiers who suicided were by definition of unsound mind.  They were not terminally ill, but in great pain and despair.

For another thing, again, it is about the families. Why should the military deprive the grieving and ashamed families when their loved one took their own life, often related to what they experienced in combat?

Families of those who die by suicide are tormented for years. We have to come up with a better way to console them and to decrease the pain.  Whether that is a letter from the Commander in Chief I do not know. But it is a start.


Thanks very much for your post.  I came across this today as I was searching for information because my brother has passed away this week - we do not know the details yet as CID is investigating and suicide is a possibility.  As a former Army officer, I know they have their processes to go through, but I don't know how I'll react should my brother be denied the respect he deserves after 22 years of service while he and his wife have had to endure their marital stresses over the past five years with only getting to spend one of those years together after multiple deployments and training (they're both commissioned). 

The Army is covering the cost for me and my family to all fly to our home of record so that we can bury him.  And, they will be PCSing his wife to either her or his home of record interestingly instead of forcing her and their two children to deal with it there.  I was amazed to hear of these new policies and am pleased that someone's made some really considerations on this topic. 

I agree with you  in that anyone that commits suicide is not of sound mind - regardless of whether it was premeditated or accidental.  I can feel for the person who has to make the decision of whether a family is due the death benefit - it's certainly not an easy one and I think we would both argue that it's not really possible to make that call.  The family is left behind and has to endure, so I can see the argument that they should not be "punished" for the poor, unsound-mind decision of the soldier.  I can also see the Army's side - slightly - in that they don't want to offer the distressed soldier suicide as an option to "fix" one's issues....but, anyone that would consider that a good option is not of sound mind.


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