President Obama announced Wednesday that he had reversed the policy that bars military authorities from sending official condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide in a combat zone. The move comes against the backdrop of steadily rising military suicide rates and a major Defense Department effort to turn the disturbing trend around.
“[I]n consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the military chain of command, I have decided to reverse [the] long-standing policy,” Obama said in a White House release. “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.”
Although the suicide rate among U.S. soldiers has historically been lower than it has been among U.S. civilians, the Army reported that that statistic reversed for the first time in 2008 and that it has grown increasingly lopsided ever since.
Roughly 10 of every 100,000 people in the U.S. commit suicide each year. There are approximately 550,000 active U.S. Army personnel and last year 156 of those soldiers killed themselves. Even allowing for fluctuating active duty numbers, that’s more than double the civilian suicide rate– and that’s merely counting active Army soldiers. The rate of suicide among National Guard and Army reservists nearly doubled last year to 145. In the Navy, suicide is now the third highest cause of death. Given the fact that the country is engaged in two wars, it startles to learn that more U.S. service members killed themselves last year than died in combat.
It’s a problem the military is determined to address, even though some lawmakers appear not to want to acknowledge there’s any problem at all.
When military leaders went to Congress in 2009 to give testimony on the issue, Assistant Marine Commandant General James Amos flatly told lawmakers that the Armed Forces had done an “abysmal” job addressing mental illness and depression among its ranks. Other officers detailed how the long-engrained stigma attached to suicide and suicidal feelings prevented soldiers from seeking help. Yet Republican members of Congress listening to the testimony seemed to resist the information, raising the specter of denial and shame the military has been at pains to spotlight as a main source of the problem.
Minnesota Republican John Kline sought to tamp down the general sense of alarm.
“This isn’t an extraordinary suicide rate,” he said, reflecting on the numbers and noting that he thought the suicide rate mirrored the rate in society as a whole. He was incorrect and, worse, he seemed to be intentionally taking the numbers presented to him out of the context that sees them steadily climbing and doing so in a sustained way for the first time ever.
South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson was skeptical that the kind of mental health programs the Defense Department is implementing would work. General Amos said they did work as part of an approach that attacks the problem on many fronts simultaneously.
In the White House release, Obama suggested the change of policy has been in the works for some time.
“This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly,” he said.
“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.”