A Long Overdue Letter of Condolence

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 By Olympia Duhart

This is the letter no one wants.

But for many families crushed by the pain of losing a loved one, this is also the letter that may bring a measure of solace.  More importantly, this is the letter that provides recognition by the government that the life taken – even by the victim’s own hands – was not lost in vain.

This week, the White House announced that it would reverse its long-standing policy of not sending condolence letters to families of service members who commit suicide while deployed.  The move from President Barack Obama is one critical step toward reducing the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness connected to military service.

In his July 6 statement, President Obama recognized the complexity of the issue:  “The issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely.”

Despite recent education and outreach efforts, suicide among military troops continues to soar. The Pentagon reported this week that close to 300 active duty service members committed suicide last year.  In his statement, the President defended the service members and called for an improved response to the conditions that contributed to their deaths. “They didn’t die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change,” President Obama said. 

The 2010 suicide rate among service members represents a jump of 151 percent from a decade earlier.  In the Army alone, the rate of suicides reached 22 per 100,000 last year, higher than the rate for civilian counter-parts. Both the Air Force and Navy have also reported increased suicides over the past few years.

A convergence of several factors – longer rotations, multiple deployments, blurry front lines and advances in body-blocking armor that offers troops physical survival but exposes them to brain and psychological harm – have led to skyrocketing suicides among service members. These factors have been incredibly pronounced in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, experts agree that a major contributing factor has been the stigma that often silences the service member struggling with mental illness.

Many Americans are still unprepared to dismantle the mythology of the G. I. Joe Soldier – who is considered indestructible in body and mind. Society’s hyper-masculine normative expectations for soldiers have proven especially dangerous in perpetuating a system that does not validate the mental strains wrought by war.

For many men and women, the invisible wounds of war have been hard to battle. For example, one soldier was overcome by what he saw when a group of suspected insurgents was blown up in Baghdad.  After arriving first to the scene and seeing men literally “ripped open,” he found frightened children hiding in the midst of the chaos. He said he helped get the children to a hospital and returned to his base where he washed the children’s blood off his armor.  That night, his mind raced through the events and he reached out to his staff sergeant for help.  He was told: “Get the sand out of your vagina.” 

Such insensitivity to the psychological pressure of war no doubt contributes to the suicide rates.  But a new culture is slowly emerging.  The military is in the incipient stages of a cultural shift that takes seriously the task of educating its own on the importance of mental health treatment and assistance.

The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (“DCoE”) has been aggressively campaigning to raise awareness for mental health issues among veterans and service members.  The Real Warriorscampaign, an initiative launched by the DCoE, promotes “psychological resilience” for service members, veterans and families.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has strengthened several aspects of its suicide prevention program.  The VA also has liberalized the process for accessing mental health treatment.  The National Institute of Mental Health has commissioned a study to identify risk factors and prevention for suicides among soldiers.  The Department of Defense has also earmarked millions of dollars to support psychological counseling programs. And then there is the President’s shift on the condolence letter policy.

“It’s a small step, but I think it, symbolically, is a big one, in that it can help erode the stigma, which is one of the biggest problems we face in combating these types of problems,” said 1stLt. Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Though most mental health experts and troop advocates have praised the President’s new policy, the reaction to the letter has not been universally positive.  Some critics charge that the new letter policy creates an unworkable standard that opens the door too wide for those who earn special service recognition.

Others who support the policy change assert that the new guidelines do not go far enough.

The new policy on condolence letters only applies to service members who commit suicide while deployed in a combat zone. Advocates would like to see the combat zone-limitation abandoned. (Two thirds of military suicides occur after troops leave the battlefield.) Suicides among veterans are also beyond the scope of the changes.  The suicide rate among veterans suicide continues to jump each year. Reports of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans continue to rise at record pace.

For mental health advocates who have lobbied for years to see this change on the condolence letter policy, this week’s announcement offers hope. It also contributes to the important and long overdue conversation about suicides in the military.

This is a letter that no one wants. Unfortunately, this is also a letter that many people need.