POLITICS
04/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Family Of Suicide Soldier Still Waiting For Condolence Letter From Obama

Last August, Gregg Keesling was at home watching President Obama's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in which the president stated that one of his most solemn duties was "signing a letter of condolence to the family of servicemen or women who have given their lives for our country."

That line resonated with the Indianapolis businessman, because he and his wife, Janet, had not received such a letter from the president after the death of their son, Chance, a U.S. Army Reserve Specialist in Iraq. The family received a folded flag, a 21-gun salute at his burial and financial death benefits, but not a letter of condolence from Obama.

After talking to military officials, Keesling realized that he would not be getting a letter for a simple reason: Chance took his own life and the president does not send condolence letters to families of soldiers who commit suicide. The unwritten policy has existed for at least a decade and rests on the long-held military conviction that suicide, even on the front lines, is not an honorable way to die.

After Keesling's situation received widespread media coverage in the fall and a policy change was supported by several mental health organizations, the White House promised to review the policy. Well, Keesling is still waiting.

"This is my president -- not only [did] I vote for [him] but I admire [him] -- and I want him to acknowledge that my sacrifice was worth it," Keesling tells Huffington Post. "I could have stopped my son -- he was only in high school [when he first enlisted] -- but he really wanted to go serve his country. I just want to know that the president says, 'Thanks, our country appreciates it.'"

The bitter irony of the situation is that Chance Keesling killed himself just months after being called up for a second tour of duty, despite mental health problems that required him to be placed on suicide watch during his first tour in Iraq and led to him leaving the Army.

The White House did not return repeated calls for comment.

Several prominent veterans health groups and military support groups are pushing to change the policy.

"These families already feel such shame and so alienated from the military and the country, a letter from the president might give them some comfort, some sense that people recognize their sacrifice," Kim Ruocco, director for suicide support for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, told the New York Times in November. "What better way to eliminate stigma?"

On January 12, TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll sent a letter to President Obama, imploring him to change the policy. The letter closes with a passionate plea:

It is time for us, as a nation, to honor all those who die while serving honorably. Every military family pays a price when a loved one serves in the military. Their loved ones stand ready to go into harm's way to protect our country. Their deaths are painful to their surviving family members, regardless of the circumstances or location of the death.


Acknowledging each military death with a letter of condolence would bring White House policy into alignment with current Department of Defense casualty and burial benefits. It would demonstrate the deep compassion of a grateful Commander-in-Chief, who acknowledges a military family's sacrifice and service to country.

We humbly request that you consider a policy revision that will honor each military member's life and service, and offer comfort to those grieving the death of a loved one.

In response, a White House representative told the group that the administration is "working on it," Ruocco tells HuffPost.

In recent days, Ruocco says she has been told that the military objects to the change, claiming that sending such letters to the families of military suicides would take away the stigma of the act and could lead others to take their lives. Ruocco counters that argument, saying "How does it create copycat suicides if everyone gets the same letter? It's not like the families of suicides get a special letter."

The desired change in policy would actually return it to long-standing military tradition. "Since Lincoln, the president has been writing such letters in the belief that if a soldier who dies on the front lines -- if he dies cooking in the kitchen, he's just as much of a hero," says Dr. Michael Blumenfield, a professor of psychiatry who has advocated for a change.

The issue has become especially important in light of the alarming rise in suicides among U.S. troops in Iran and Afghanistan -- the 211 in 2009 surpassed the record rate of 2008. About 20 percent of the 30,000 suicides in the country each year are by veterans, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said last month.

Keesling says that his son enrolled soon after the war broke out in 2003 and was quickly disillusioned. "He became a gunner on a Humvee and he didn't relay any serious incidents but I think he experienced some form of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]." Though Keesling says Chance never told him that he killed anyone, "He often said, 'Who knows? You fire off in this direction and you don't really know.' "

Though Chance was proud of a mission to transport electricity-generating equipment up to northern Iraq, Keesling says that his son got depressed about seeing friends die and about his marriage falling apart while he was overseas. The army took away his firearm, he was placed on suicide watch and he eventually left the service.

But several years later, Chance was offered $17,000 to go back and re-enlist and he joined the Army reserve. Shockingly, despite his history of mental health problems, he was called up in February 2009.

"We began the process of, 'Can you handle this?' says Keesling. "We even discussed going to live in Jamaica. But he said, 'No, Dad. I can't be a felon. I'll be OK.' "

By June, Chance was losing it and describing his depression to his parents in heartfelt emails, including one that was sent 11 hours before his suicide. "He said, 'I can't be here for a whole frigging year. I can't go on,' " says Keesling.

Later that morning, Chance shot himself with an M-4 in a latrine at his base.

Now, Keesling hopes that the president will acknowledge his son's service.

"It's a stab in the heart," he says, about not receiving the condolence letter. "And disbelief. President Obama was my man. Of course, I voted for him. My grandchildren would stand in front of the TV during the election, shouting 'Obama, Obama, Uncle Chance won't go to war.'"

Read the full letter from TAPS to President Obama:

TAPS_on_Condolence_Letter_Policy -