President Obama this week decided to change the longstanding policy that until now excluded families of U.S. service members who killed themselves in war zones from receiving presidential condolence letters, White House officials told ABC News.
The policy –- decades old, and likely rooted in military perceptions that suicide is dishonorable — has been under review by the president’s National Security Staff since December 2009.
Since then, a senior White House official said, the National Security Staffer engaged in an exhaustive review process, and the president decided to make the change, prompted by "the conversations we had with experts about de-stigmatizing suicide, (and) the conversations we had with military families.”
Letters to families of service members who die in war zones will be from the president, and will differ depending on the type of death, as in a combat death versus an accidental death.
“The President feels strongly that we need to de-stigmatize the mental health costs of war to prevent these tragic deaths, and changing this policy is part of that process,” a senior White House official said.
The change was first reported by CBS Evening News’s Elaine Quijano on Tuesday night.
The Pentagon has been trying to address the skyrocketing rates of suicide in recent years.
More than 200 U.S. service members have killed themselves in the theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan since those wars began.
Still more have committed suicide outside combat areas. In August 2010, the final report of the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces concluded: “The physical and psychological demands on both the deployed and non-deployed warriors are enormous. In the 5 years from 2005 to 2009, more than 1,100 members of the Armed Forces took their own lives, an average of 1 suicide every 36 hours.”
The Army’s suicide report released in July 2010 showed that between 2005 and 2009, 22.8 percent of all Army suicides were in combat zones.
One of those pushing for the change in White House policy was Gregg Keesling, whose son, Specialist Chancellor Keesling, 25, shot himself in a latrine in Iraq on June 19, 2009. The Keeslings received financial death benefits, a folded American flag, and a rifle salute — but no letter from the president.
Last Fall, the American Psychiatric Association asked President Obama to reverse the policy, saying a policy change "will not only help to honor the contributions and lives of these servicemen and women, but will also send a message that discriminating against those with mental illness is not acceptable."
In May, the co-chairs of the Senate Military Family Caucus, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., and nine Democratic senators also asked the president to change the policy, which they called “insensitive.”
"As you well know, the incidence of suicide among our service men and women has reached epidemic levels due to the stresses of nearly 10 years of continuous combat operations," the senators wrote. "While we appreciate that your administration initiated a review of this policy in December 2009, we understand that this review has yet to be completed. It is long past time to overturn this hurtful policy.”
Last year the Army released a video called “Shoulder to Shoulder: I Will Never Quit On Life," telling the true story of Specialist Joseph Sanders who, in his words, “grabbed my rifle off the wall, put my rifle under my chin, put it on semi and pulled the trigger” after his wife asked him for a divorce. He was saved because his friend, Specialist Albert Godding, had been worried about him and had removed his friend’s firing pin.
– Jake Tapper and Luis Martinez