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Memorial Day Wishes for Our "Evolving" President

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A member of the U.S. armed forces commits suicide every 36 hours. A veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes.

There is never any one reason why an individual takes his life. This is as true of civilians as it is of soldiers. Still, in the case of our troops, a few factors loom large in the high incidence of suicides. These factors are now familiar to all of us: multiple deployments that inure a soldier to violence and deprive him of the support of his family; an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, stemming to some extent from an enemy that uses IED's; an ill-defined mission in Afghanistan that continues to change.

And yet, as counter-intuitive as it may have once seemed, our troops are actually most at risk to suicide when they return home.

Last November, I cited a study by the Center for a New American Security, which revealed those alarming figures on suicide for service members and veterans. The study's recommendations included urging all military branches to maintain unit cohesion for 90 days following a return from deployment, a policy that had been used by the Marines but not apparently by the Army.

As I wrote in that piece, "during periods of non-deployment, soldiers, who have developed a camaraderie within the ranks and who typically feel a strong sense of purpose while in combat, can lose that sense of what the study's authors term 'belongingness and usefulness.' Those are two of the 'protective' factors that have historically insulated soldiers from suicide. But when troops return to a garrison environment or to civilian life, where the roughly 12% unemployment rate for soldiers remains higher than that for the general population, they, in particular Guardsmen, Reservists and veterans, are at a higher risk of suicide than before."

I have written about soldiers and suicide on numerous occasions over the past few years, and for some time I have urged the Obama administration to send condolence letters to the families of troops who take their lives. I did so following Memorial Day last year, after President Obama dutifully made an appearance at Arlington National Cemetery and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

At that time, I contacted the White House press office by phone and e-mail, seeking to know when the president would change his policy. I did not hear back from the press office.

A month later, though, President Obama announced a new policy in which the administration would write condolence letters to the families of troops who commit suicide but only if the suicide occurred in what is deemed to be a combat zone. I welcomed that decision as a first step. It was an improvement over the policy of zero condolence letters for military suicides, an unwritten rule dating back evidently to the Clinton years.

At the same time, I chided the Obama administration for its faulty logic and "asinine" approach in denying condolence letters to the families of the vast majority of troops who commit suicide, those who do so when they are not in combat.

As I wrote last year, it is "inhumane and demeaning" to value the life of one soldier more than that of another simply because the one killed himself in a war zone and the other did so elsewhere. In both cases, the soldier would have died at his own hand, not the hand of the enemy. Moreover, there is a reasonable possibility that a soldier who takes his life away from the battlefield did indeed serve in combat. In any event, all suicides by our troops should be treated the same, with dignity and respect not for the fatal act, but for the years of dedication and sacrifice made by those men and women who served in uniform.

After all the articles and TV specials on veterans having trouble finding jobs at home while coping with PTSD, TBI and depression, it should be obvious by now to any policymaker that our troops are at a greater risk of suicide when they are away from the battlefield. Yet the Obama administration continues to send condolence letters only when a military suicide occurs in a war zone.

This week, I contacted the White House press office yet again. As of press time, I still had not heard back. Were I to speak to a press official, I would urge him to tell the president to reconsider his policy on condolence letters. Perhaps, like his stance on gay marriage, President Obama's stance on these letters can "evolve" into the only humane and thoughtful position, that of sending condolences to the families of all troops who commit suicide.