On Wednesday, the White House announced a profound change in the government's response to service members who commit suicide. President Obama will now send their families condolence letters just as he does to families of troops who die in combat or as a result of noncombat incidents in a war zone.
"This issue is emotional, painful and complicated," President Obama said in a statement. "But these Americans served our nation bravely ... 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."
Military families have been lobbying for this change for a few years, and six weeks ago, a group of senators-- 10 Democrats and one Republican -- asked the president to change the "insensitive" policy. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who led the bipartisan group, applauded the change. "This will ... do a great deal to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health treatment that prevents so many from seeking the care they need," she said in a statement Wednesday.
Gregg Keesling was one of many parents who has worked for many years for this change. His son, Spc. Chancellor Keesling, killed himself while serving in Iraq. After their son's death, he and his wife fully expected to receive a condolence letter from the president. When the letter did not arrive, Mr. Keesling wrote the president and the Army chief of staff to request they change the policy. As his son's suicide resulted from what he experienced during his service, Mr. Kessling believed his son's death merited the government's recognition and condolences.
"(This new policy) does not bring our son back," Mr. Keesling told CNN Wednesday, "but I think it does send a powerful message that mental health in our military can be addressed."
Obama said he hopes the change in policy will influence a change in the country's perception of mental illness. "They didn't die because they were weak," he said in his statement. "And the fact that they didn't get the help they needed must change."
Yet what this new policy does not address is the military suicides that occur outside the war zone: two-thirds of military suicides. As Tragedy Assistance for Survivors (TAPS), a a support group for military families who have lost a loved one in the service, said, "A line is drawn between the value of the life and service of someone who dies on foreign soil and someone who dies in the exact same manner ... here at home."
Consider Army Sgt. Douglas Hale Jr., 26, a veteran of two combat tours who left Fort Hood in Texas, who died a year ago. After buying a pistol at a pawn shop, he then shot himself in a restaurant restroom.
"My son served, too, you know," said his mother, Glenda Moss, in USA Today. "Sure, he didn't actually die while he was in action, but what happened to him and what he saw might have been enough, added to his other problems."
The president clearly believes we need to remove the stigmas of war's mental health consequences. But it is striking that his statement completely ignores the 71 percent of the suicides that occur after service. If we are truly going to address the stigma of mental illness, we must first address the culture within the military that still denigrates, if not punishes, any expression of emotional or psychological pain. While the top echelons of the military say all the right things about PTSD, on the ground -- within squads, platoons and battalions -- the attitude has not changed at all. And for veterans, we must make meaningful care easily available at all VAs around the country. Stories of veterans in desperate need having doors closed in their faces -- literally as well as figuratively -- are common. The president must speak to these realities for all our servicemen and women and our veterans to receive the mental health care they need and deserve.