The tradition is part of national ritual. When a member of the U.S. military dies in a combat zone, the president acknowledges the loss with a letter of condolence to the family of the deceased. There was one exception. No letter was sent to the families of those who committed suicide in a war zone. President Barack Obama reversed that policy earlier this month. Thank goodness.
The new policy acknowledges a hard truth — that suicides increasingly are a problem in the military and that a family’s loss is not diminished because of the manner of death. Indeed, the president directly addressed the nation’ complicity in the suicides when he announced the change in policy.
“The issue is emotional, painful and complicated, but these Americans [who committed suicide] served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change.” His words are a wake-up call to a nation that sends men and women to war, but then fails to provide adequate services to help them cope with the mental stress the duty can produce.
The number of military men and women who commit suicide — 295 last year — is not large, and the number that killed themselves in a war zone — 30 last year — is smaller. What’s disturbing, though, is the rise in the number of military suicides.
Before 2008, the military suicide rate was lower than in the overall U.S. population. Since then, it has remained above the norm. The military and others have studied the problem, and there is growing agreement that repeated and longer tours of duty and family problems at home are potent factors in suicide rates. Little has been done to relieve those pressures.
The suicide problem defies easy resolution. It is, in fact, two problems. One involves personnel in combat zones. The other occurs when military personnel return home to face the difficulties of post-traumatic stress disorders and a return to family routines. The president acknowledged both.
Sending letters of condolence to families of all U.S. military personnel who die in a combat zone removes the stigma of suicide by acknowledging that mental stress faced by those in uniform can be as deadly as enemy fire. The change in policy, however, only alludes to the other problem.
The president admitted that suicides often occur because members of the military are reluctant to admit they need help, and then find it difficult to get it when they do. The United States should do a better job of providing such assistance. The president, legislators and military leaders will have to unite — difficult to do in the current political atmosphere — to develop and fund the services necessary to properly address the issue. Surely, that’s not too much to ask on behalf of the nation’s fighting men and women.