W hen the commander in chief writes a letter to a grieving family honoring the service of a soldier who has made the ultimate sacrifice, it's a powerful gesture of appreciation. So President Barack Obama did the right thing in reversing a long-standing and irrational policy of not sending condolence letters to families of combat-scarred soldiers who commit suicide. The nation should continue to do more to acknowledge the growing numbers of troops who commit suicide, and give more support to those coping with the psychological wounds of war.
While letters from the president can provide some comfort, more needs to be done to provide enhanced therapy and counseling for troops dealing with traumatic brain injuries, posttraumatic stress disorder and depression — all factors that contribute to the military's alarming suicide rate.
After a needlessly long 18-month review of the condolence letter policy, Obama will now begin sending letters to families of troops who take their lives while serving in combat zones. That's a good start. But the families of military personnel who commit suicide after returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq will still be denied an official presidential acknowledgement that their loved one was as much a combat casualty as those who were victims of a bullet or a bomb.
Each branch of the military calculates its suicide rate differently. Still, it is estimated that the numbers of troops who have killed themselves roughly parallels combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. Between 2005 and 2009, it is estimated that more than 1,100 service members committed suicide. Last year, 295 active-duty personnel took their lives. The Army alone had 155 suicides within its ranks in 2010, with an additional 67 suicides through May of this year. But since only 38 of these self-inflicted deaths over the two-year period occurred within a combat zone, under the new condolence letter policy 184 grieving Army families would still be unfairly denied an official presidential recognition honoring their loved one's service in uniform.
The Obama administration should be more inclusive in implementing its condolence letter policy to better reflect the mental and emotional stress multiple deployments over nearly 10 years of combat have inflicted on America's military. Far too many of America's fallen heroes who have survived the killing fields still cannot escape the enemy who lurks within the mind.