In an interesting move by President Obama, he has decided this week to send condolence letters to the families of service members who kill themselves while in combat units overseas. Obama received praise for his decision by General Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, who said that this was a monumental act that helps to reduce the stigma in the military that comes with mental health and therapy needs.As General Chiarelli said,
“It acknowledges that the service rendered by these (troubled) individuals, as well as the service and sacrifices made by their family, deserve the same recognition given to those men and women who died as the result of enemy action.”
A Bold Recognition
Obama made the decision, after much deliberation, to send the condolence letters for families whose service men and women killed themselves in war zones. As Obama explained, “They didn’t die because they are weak, and the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change.”
Widespread Military Issue
Unfortunately, suicide is a widespread issue in the military. The Air Force has reported three consecutive years of increased suicides and the Navy looks like it’s going to have a higher number this year than it did last year. The Army suicide rate is 22 per 100,000, and this is higher than a similarly aged group in the civilian community. Interestingly, only the Marine Corps has seen a recent drop in suicide rates since 2009.Part of the issue is that the soldiers in combat zones see a stigma attached to seeking mental health care.
Too Little From Obama
One bone of contention that some groups and families have with Obama’s decision, however, is that the letters are only going to families whose soldiers killed themselves while in combat. As the Tragedy Assistance for Survivors (TAPS) support group points out, two-thirds of military suicides occur outside the war zone. A TAPS statement said, “A line is drawn between the value of the life and service of someone who dies on foreign soil and someone who dies in the exact same manner … here at home.”