Families of Military Suicides Seek White House Condolences
family received a folded flag, a letter from the Army praising their son, a 21-gun
salute at his burial and financial death benefits, but not a letter of condolence from President Obama.
By JAMES DAO
So after his son killed himself in Iraq in June, Gregg Keesling expected that his family would receive a letter from President Obama. What it got instead was a call from an Army official telling family members that they were not eligible because their son had committed suicide.
“We were shocked,” said Mr. Keesling, 52, of Indianapolis.
Under an unwritten policy that has existed at least since the Clinton administration, presidents have not sent letters to survivors of troops who took their own lives, even if it was at the war front, officials say. The roots of that policy, which has been passed from administration to administration via White House protocol officers, are murky and probably based in the view that suicide is not an honorable way to die, administration and military officials say.
But at a time when the Pentagon is trying to destigmatize mental health care in hopes of stemming a near epidemic of suicide among service members, the question of whether the survivors of military suicides deserve presidential recognition has taken on new significance.
“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,” said Kim Ruocco, director for suicide support for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, a military support group. “What better way to eliminate stigma?”
As suicide has crept out of the shadows and become a front-burner problem for the military, TAPS, members of Congress and individuals like Mr. Keesling have begun raising the thorny issue of equal honors for survivors of military suicides. Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said the administration had begun a review of the policy on letters of condolence.
“The president’s thoughts and prayers are with every military family who has lost a loved one in service to our country,” Mr. Vietor said.
Presidential letters of condolence go to survivors of troops who died in action in a war theater. Though most suicides take place on posts in the United States, a significant number occur in Iraq and Afghanistan: at least 184 since 2001, according to Defense Department statistics.
Through October, the Army, which far and away leads the armed forces in suicides, reported 133 among active-duty soldiers, putting it on pace to surpass last year’s record, 140. The Marine Corps, which has the second-largest number, is also likely to have more suicides than last year, 42.
The spike in suicides has prompted an array of actions at the Pentagon. The Army is collaborating with the National Institute of Mental Health to study mental health and suicide. It has created a suicide prevention task force led by a brigadier general. It has instituted suicide prevention programs at most posts and will require all soldiers to take intensive training in emotional resiliency, to help them cope with the stress of war and deployment.
But as much as anything, the Army is trying to soften the longstanding sense that psychological problems are a sign of frailty. “We have to reduce the stigma surrounding seeking mental health help,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, said this year. “Getting help for emotional problems should be as natural as seeking help for a sprained ankle.”
Mr. Obama has also spoken forcefully about the pain of suicide in the military. “We know that incidence of psychological injury increase with each additional tour of duty in Iraq, and that our troops are not getting the support they need,” he said in the 2008 campaign. “Too many are falling through the cracks because they need help but feel they can’t get it.”
Advocates for suicide survivors say the military has come a long way in equalizing the way it deals with suicides. Death benefits are largely the same for families, regardless of how a service member died. And suicides are eligible for an array of military honors, like burial in a national cemetery or color guards at funerals.
But a suspicion remains among survivors that there are differences. Ms. Ruocco, whose husband, a Marine, killed himself in 2005 after returning from Iraq several years ago, said several members of TAPS had said they had not received the folded flags from the military after family members committed suicide. She said it was possible they were not eligible, but the Pentagon had not been able to clarify its rules for suicide cases.
She also said the Gold Stars that parents of military suicides received were slightly different from the Gold Stars given to parents of troops killed in action. It is a small difference, she said, but one that further separates suicide survivors from other military families. The stress of war and deployment is often a cause of suicide, she argued, making it no different than a fatal wound from a roadside bomb.
But opponents of presidential letters of condolence argue that treating suicide the same as other war deaths might encourage mentally frail soldiers to take their lives by making the act seem honorable.
After Gregg Keesling’s son, Chancellor, shot himself in a latrine on June 19, the family received a folded flag, a letter from the Army praising their son, a rifle salute at his burial and financial death benefits.
But he views the letter of condolence as an important step toward reducing the shame and guilt many survivors feel. Hours before Chancellor, a 25-year-old specialist, killed himself, he had argued with his girlfriend over the phone and then sent a rambling, despondent e-mail message home.
“I can’t explain how ashamed i am i said some things out of anger,” he wrote. “I can’t cope without each and every one of you there by me the whole way. I feel alone and unappreciated for some odd reason this deployment is ending up to be like the last i thought about killing myself and went to the porti john and chambered a round into my me but decided not to pull the trigger. I realize i need help and i need to have family put first. Please forgive me and except my apology.”
About 17 hours later, he was dead.
“My last words to my son were, ‘Be a man and get through it,’ ” Mr. Keesling said, recalling one of dozens of frantic phone calls to Iraq in the hours before Chancellor’s death. “I was the stupid dad. If my son had said, ‘Dad, I’ve broken my leg, I can’t go on,’ I would have understood. But I didn’t understand the mental health side.”
Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting.