Brian Williams’ sacrifice

brian_williams_owatonna.jpg Connie Scott, of Owatonna, Minn., would like the nation to be as proud of her son’s sacrifice for his country as her family is. She knows it’s not, however. Her son, Pfc. Brian Matthew Williams, 20, killed himself and until today, the nation didn’t honor the death of soldiers who served and died by suicide.

“There’s been a lot of disappointment and anger that we don’t receive the same recognition that those killed in action receive,” she told me this afternoon. “When people find out that a family has lost someone in the military in combat, there’s immediately a response. There are recognitions and honors, awards, parades, medals, reporters, and memorial events. When it’s announced that another soldier ends his life, it’s still uncomfortable.”

President Barack Obama did not make a public announcement in ending the government’s policy of not sending a condolence letter to the families of soldiers who kill themselves. He issued a press release, instead:


“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.

“As a next step and in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the military chain of command, I have also decided to reverse a long-standing policy of not sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone. This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly.

“This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak. And 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.”

Brian Williams was stationed at a combat outpost in Ramadi, Iraq when he was sent home on leave for the Christmas holiday in 2007. His unit had lost several men and his fiancee wrote him that she loved someone else.

“He didn’t talk to me about it,” his mother said. “He talked to his siblings and told them a couple of stories. His grandmother asked him how it was and he said it was worse than anything you can imagine.”

pfc_williams.jpgHis job in Iraq was maintaining electronic gear, but he often went out on patrol with his unit. “He was led to believe that he would be keeping the equipment in working order. But he was also part of doing the night patrols where they would go into Ramadi and kick in doors, looking for insurgents,” Scott told NPR in a 2010 story.

The day before he was to return to Iraq, Williams took his own life.

“Suicide is rarely about just one issue, and Brian was dealing with several difficult situations in addition to combat,” Connie Scott wrote on the Suicide Prevention Action Network USA website. “His eyes were glassy, his completion was gray, and he was restless and unable to eat or sleep. But on the last day of his leave things seemed to change. He talked with all of his friends and family, shared his plans for the future, and he seemed OK, in fact better than ever. We didn’t know then what that meant.”

Scott, who served on the Department of Defense task force on soldier suicide, does not expect to receive a letter from President Obama and isn’t sure whether it would make a difference now if she did. “For surviving families, it’s the constant up-and-down that never ends,” she said. “How I feel about it today may not be how I feel about it tomorrow.” She believes, however, that a presidential condolence letter will bring some comfort to many families.

“What makes a person a hero is the day they sign up, the day they enlist,” she said. “Because at that point, they are giving themselves to the government to be used in whatever way the government chooses.”

  • matt

    I agree with Obama’s decision to send condolence letters to the family of people who take their own life. I also have no doubt that if it were not for the hardship of war this young man would have not chosen the path that he did. But in the end he chose to enlist during wartime, he chose deployment over desertion, and in the end he chose suicide. Combatants that are killed in action are killed by enemy (or sometimes friendly) fire, they are actively trying to avoid death or in some cases accepting death to save others – this young man chose his death rather than facing the alternative of living. It may have been the best choice he had but is not deserving of recognition on the same level of marine killed on patrol or even a truck driver killed by a mine.

    Minimizing actions and accomplishments and emphasizing intent and feelings may be uplifting for “all” but is a degredation of the “few”.

  • Elizabeth T

    It is appropriate for an employer to send condolences to the surviving family of an employee who has died. The *content* of the condolences will naturally be different, depending upon the cause or nature of the death.

    Sending a letter of condolence to a soldier’s family is not done for the soldier, it is for the comfort of the family. The family who must now mourn deserves comfort as a simple human action. The DoD does not need to pretend the soldier did anything other than commit suicide.

    It is ridiculous that the DoD will sing my praises til the cows come home today as the dutiful wife holding the family together on the home front, and then completely ignore my existence tomorrow after he commits suicide as if I never existed. This dismisses the work I, as a wife, have put into supporting my soldier-spouse.

    We can offer condolences without offering approval. The least the DoD should do is send a simple letter offering sympathy for the *family’s* loss.

  • Mac

    I agreed with the mother on many points, except the very last paragraph, “What makes a person a hero is the day they sign up, the day they enlist,” she said. “Because at that point, they are giving themselves to the government to be used in whatever way the government chooses.”

    Wrong. Lately we’ve used the word “hero” way too loosely. When a person enlists, all they have done is sign some paperwork in exchange for a salary. A hero is a person who goes way above and beyond and saves lives, and normally isn’t paid to do so.

    Though I feel terrible for this soldier’s family, he obviously was not mentally fit for his post and should have been discharged at worst, or been found unfit for duty before enlistment at best.

    At the end though, if a man/woman serves their country and dies while enlisted, the family should receive a letter of condolence. It doesn’t cost much, and shows that the gov’t appreciated the soldier’s efforts.

  • Lily

    Suicide is highly correlated with major depression and major mental illnesses overall….anyone who has lived with an individual anywhere knows the tremendous courage it takes to live day to day. To serve one’s Country in combat with a mental illness is beyond heroism…it can and does take Hurculean efforts. Imagine serving with a broken leg, a severe heart condition, or the pain of inoperable cancer? All are parallel.

    Condolences to the family and friends of this young man. May our culture continue to recognize mental illness as a serious health condition, remove stigma, and send lots of cards (and even casseroles) to any family affected by suicide. Blessings to this family.

  • Donna Hutton

    Hero? Not! My sympathies to the family for their loss. But HERO?? Come on, be serious! A Suicide is a coward! Someone who can’t or won’t face life’s trials? How selfish can one be? Shame on that soldier for being so cruel to his family & friends.

  • Bob Collins

    I presume you don’t accept the notion that suicide is often the product of a mental illness. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to link a logical act with a mind that’s unable to think logically.

    The fact is we don’t know the brain. We don’t know how it works. A broken bone we understand. A broken mind we’re not even willing to consider.

    Which is interesting because nobody argues that the human brain is the most complex part of the body.

  • Barb

    The military can break the mind….a young person goes in healthy and ready to do what ever is required to serve their country….not knowing they can be manipulated and destroyed by the military! I know this family and I know the circumstances and am also the parent of a military person who is struggling. Screw anyone who blames suicide of a person in the military to everyday depression!!!!! You are a bunch of uninformed people! All enlisted personel are heros…..they have given their lives to the country to what end no one knows!!!!

  • julie

    Wow Donna… let me guess… you don’t have anyone in the Military?… or better yet, no one that has been in a war?? These men and women can enlist, knowing what the ultimate sacrifice is, but the reality of it comes when they are actually in a fire fight and the bullets are whizzing within inches of their heads… and they SEE what war REALLY looks like! My son, who is a Marine came home after his first deployment and said “No movie, book or other person can prepare you for what it is really like”. Shame on you… at least there are men and women stepping up to do this… its too bad that the ones that are unable to handle it can’t just walk away… nope, they would be considered a deserter. My son was MY HERO when he signed his paper… giving the US Government total control over what he will and will not do for the next 5 years… maybe more. That is when they have made their choice to serve!! My heart felt condolences go out to any family who has lost a loved one in the Military.. regardless of how their soldier died!!

  • Matt

    You all have very valid points. Suicide is a VERY selfish act…however, for most that commit or attempt suicide, is selfishness part of their usual, everyday character? If no, then they have fallen victim to some other underlying issue. People that are seen as always being there for others in a time of need are not selfish, so it is not right to label them as selfish because of a single incident.

    I believe it’s an especially difficult subject with military personnel and their families, because there are so many pieces to the puzzle of life. A deployed soldier must not only deal with the possibility of losing his or her life every day of the week, but also the fact that when they go home to see their families, few, if anyone at all can relate to what they have seen or done. Likewise, families at home must move on with life as usual, but also worry every day about their loved one thousands of miles away. In the words quoted by one woman’s son, he is exactly right, movies and documentaries will never fully be able to instill those experiences on others…and even if they could, their effect would only be temporary. You leave the theater and head to Dairy Queen, and soon you’re back to talking about next Sunday’s football game over a snicker blizzard. Soldiers don’t have that luxury.

    I know of a mid 20s female soldier who had a reputation of being ruthless behind her truck’s machine gun. How many women do you meet on the street that share that same trait? How many truck drivers do you know were ordered to not stop their vehicle in a convoy no matter what got in the way? It doesn’t sound like much of an issue until you throw in the notion of a young boy trying to retrieve the soccer ball that got away from him and his friends and went into the road. Did that really happen? Absolutely. Now put yourself in either of those soldiers’ shoes and think, what would what would be going through your head before you went to bed each night? How many positive thoughts could you get through before the eyes of that 4 year old staring at you through the windshield right before they impacted your front grill? It’s a gruesome thought, but it’s reality, and that’s what we’re talking about here right?

    In this case, a young soldier enduring the unanticipated rigors of combat came home on what was supposed to be a positive change of pace. Instead the woman who he loved most destroyed the greatest thing to him. Did he have some good reasons to end the pain and anguish? You bet he did. Did he have good reasons to keep living? Absolutely. It’s just that at that point in time, he didn’t see the reasons to live…and the reasons to die got the best of him.

    Another blogger pointed out that the deaths of a soldier that committed suicide and that of the stereotypical “hero” are different…that one should be hailed as heroic while the other is labeled as cowardly. To a certain point, he’s right; the circumstances surrounding the deaths are completely different. Both however are the result of events endured during a deployment…and therefor both……are casualties of war.