President Obama has said that his position on gay marriage is "evolving." Apparently, the same is true of his position on condolence letters to the families of troops who have committed suicide.
Obama announced on July 6 that the White House will start sending such condolence letters, but only if the suicide occurred in what is deemed to be a combat zone. The decision is a positive step by the White House, and one welcomed by this writer, who has written about this issue on several occasions in the past. But the policy still contributes to the stigma of the mentally ill by not acknowledging suicides that occur outside combat zones.
The vast majority of the suicides by members of the U.S. military have taken place not in Iraq or Afghanistan but rather in the U.S. or on foreign bases that are not considered combat zones.
As James Dao of The New York Times reported, only 25 of the 155 suicides in the U.S. Army last year took place in the field of combat. And most of the suicides in the other branches of the military have also taken place away from battlefields.
So why won't the White House send condolence letters to the families of troops who took their lives outside a war zone?
Apparently, our political leaders and military brass think that sending condolence letters to the families of troops who took their lives outside combat areas would serve only to condone or, as Dao wrote, "encourage" suicide.
This reasoning is, first of all, inhumane and demeaning. It implies that the life of a soldier who committed suicide in a combat zone is more sacred than the life of one who took his life elsewhere. In neither case would the soldier have died at the hands of an enemy force; in both cases, the soldier would have died at his own hand.
Presumably, all the troops who have committed suicide have gone through basic training, and all have served honorably, other than in their final action. So, at a moral and spiritual level, the suicides of all troops should be treated the same way.
The reasoning behind the distinction in the policy is also asinine.
How could anyone in the military and the White House, including President Obama, believe that suicidal troops would be motivated to terminate their lives because they knew that their family members would get a condolence letter?
This defies an understanding of the suicidal mind and defies common sense.
Those who are suicidal (as I was in the late 1990s) are not likely to think that any honor could arise from their ugly deed. If anything, when I was suicidal, I had some insight into the deadly repercussions that would reverberate in my family were I to take my life, as my grandfather had years before.
Many suicidal people, of course, are in such pain that they do not think about the repercussions for their family members. But the repercussions are there, irrespective of whether or not the person takes his life in a combat zone.
I have never been in the armed forces, but it is fair to say that the family members of a soldier who commits suicide desperately crave a sense that their loved one has been officially remembered.
The L.A. Times cited the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a support group for military families, as being critical of the new policy distinction. The failure to acknowledge those troops who committed suicide outside a combat zone "does not go unnoticed and is often hurtful" to families.
I agree and hope that President Obama's views on this matter will continue to "evolve" and lead to a more humane and compassionate policy that will recognize all the troops who take their lives, whether they do so in a combat zone or not.