Are soldiers who kill themselves casualties of war?

The group Mental Health America today called on President Obama to reverse an unwritten policy against sending presidential letters of condolence to families of soldiers who commit suicide.

“The lack of acknowledgment and condolence from the President can leave these families with an emotional vacuum and a feeling that somehow their sacrifices may not have been as great as others who died while in the military,” a resolution from the organization says.

The White House has been reviewing the policy, which dates to the Clinton administration.

“Regardless of what happens, nothing lessens the amazing contribution and sacrifice that’s made. I think that’s what the president would … tell that family and would tell … other families,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last month.

What’s the big deal? Some say suicide should be a stigma. As recently as 1974, suicide was a crime in eight states. Psychiatrist Paul Steinberg, a former director of the counseling and psychiatric service at Georgetown University, says a presidential letter runs the risk of “glorifying” suicide.

The hard truth is that any possible glorification of suicide — even reports of suicide — make the taking of one’s life a more viable option. If suicide appears to be a more reasonable way of handling life’s stresses than seeking help, then suicide rates increase.

Certainly, a presidential condolence letter after one’s death is not exactly the same encouragement for suicide as the purported Muslim promise of a gift of 72 virgins after death. But the increasing number of suicides in the military suggests that we need to find the right balance between concern for the spouses, children and parents left behind, and any efforts to prevent subsequent suicides in the military.

Last month, the Navy reported one of every 35 sailors attempts suicide, the highest rate of any military branch.

Should President Obama send a presidential letter of condolence to the families of soldiers who commit suicide?(online surveys)

  • Alison

    I think a letter of condolence is appropriate, but it should be carefully worded. Not exactly a statement about the soldier giving his or her life for the country, but more a statement of sorrow for the loss. I picture the same sort of statement you might make to a friend or coworker if it was their child.

  • Sarah

    I agree. A letter of condolence from the president is appropriate and necessary for those families to feel that their sacrifice is acknowledged and appreciated. If a soldier served active duty and suffered from PTSD as a result, I would consider that a wound received while serving our country. Their family should receive the same treatment as one who lost a soldier to a physical injury. They both have suffered in service to our country and both deserve a letter of condolence and appreciation from the president.

  • teej

    Things like depression and PTSD are mental illness that kill people. If somebody in the military is on the edge of that situation, knowing that their parents will or will not get a form letter probably isn’t going to tip them one way or another.

    Acknowledging death is a matter of pure human decency. Ignoring it is disrespectful and disingenuous. If a letter from the President can help the family at all, it should be done.

  • Joanna

    I agree with the other commenters on the issue of a letter acknowleging the pain and loss of the families.

    The most useful thing I ever read about suicide, when struggling with crippling depression, is a statement by David Conroy: “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.” This simple statement encouraged me in my search for those resources, whereas shaming and stigma-laden approaches did not.

  • dasr

    Yes soldier suicide is a casualty of war and Yes the president should send a letter of condolences!