The White House says that families of service members who commit suicide while deployed abroad are now getting condolence letters from the president just like families of troops who die in other ways.
The White House has been reviewing the policy since 2009, lobbied by some military families. A White House official said Tuesday that the change was made this week. The official spoke anonymously to discuss policy deliberations.
"The president feels strongly that we need to destigmatize the mental health costs of war to prevent these tragic deaths, and changing this policy is part of that process," a senior White House official said in a statement.
Previously, the White House would send presidential condolences to the families of those who died either in combat or as a result of noncombat incidents in a war zone. Condolence letters were not sent to the families of those who commit suicide.
CNN reports that a coalition of senators recently joined the push for a change in policy.
The move comes nearly six weeks after a group of senators -- 10 Democrats and one Republican -- asked President Barack Obama to change what they called an "insensitive" policy that dates back several administrations and has been the subject of protest by some military families.
According to CBS News, the change went into effect Tuesday for soldiers who commit suicide while serving abroad, but will not be enacted retroactively, meaning that soldiers such as Chance Keesling, who killed himself on his second tour in Iraq, will not be eligible for the presidential recognition.
"He was a good soldier and that's the part that I want to know -- that the country appreciates that he fought he did everything that he was asked to do. It didn't turn out well for him, but at least this country could write a simple letter and that president represents our country and just say thank you for our son's service," Keesling's father, Gregg, told CBS News.
While the elder Keesling won't be getting an official presidential condolence letter, he's been told that his son will receive some kind of recognition from the White House to commemorate his service.
On Wednesday, President Obama formally announced the change in policy:
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.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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