ABC News’ Mary Bruce (@marykbruce) Reports:
President Obama said today that he is reversing the long-standing policy of excluding families of service members who commit suicide in war zones from receiving presidential letters of condolence because “these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak.”
“This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated,” the president said in a written statement. “The fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change. Our men and women in uniform have borne the incredible burden of our wars, and we need to do everything in our power to honor their service, and to help them stay strong for themselves, for their families and for our nation.”
Obama said his decision was not one he took lightly and that it “was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy,” which was decades old and likely based on military perceptions that suicide is dishonorable.
“As Commander in Chief, I am deeply grateful for the service of all our men and women in uniform, and grieve for the loss of those who suffer from the wounds of war – seen and unseen. Since taking office, I’ve been committed to removing the stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war, which is why I’ve worked to expand our mental health budgets, and ensure that all our men and women in uniform receive the care they need,” the president said.
Vice Chief of Staff of the Army General Peter Chiarelli said the president’s decision “represents a monumental step” toward eliminating the stigma associated with the emotional costs of war.
Chiarelli, who has long worked to change attitudes surrounding PTSD and army suicides, cited his own personal regret at having excluded a soldier who committed suicide from being honored.
“The greatest regret of my military career was as Commanding General of the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2004-05,” he wrote in a blog posted on the White House website. “I lost 169 Soldiers during that year-long deployment. However, the monument we erected at Fort Hood, Texas in memoriam lists 168 names. I approved the request of others not to include the name of the one Soldier who committed suicide. I deeply regret my decision.”
More than 200 US service members have killed themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan since those wars began.
“The persistent high operational tempo of this war, the terrible things some have seen or experienced in combat, have undoubtedly taken a toll on them. Many are struggling with the ‘invisible wounds’ of this war,” Chiarelli wrote. “Any attempt to characterize these individuals as somehow weaker than others is simply misguided.… We remain committed to raising awareness, helping individuals increase their resiliency, while ensuring they have access to the right support services and resources. That said, if we hope to truly have an impact we must continue to do everything we can to eliminate the stigma.”