The NYSPA Report: Families of Suicided Soldiers to Get Letter of Condolence from President

During July of this year, President Obama announced that he would begin sending letters of condolence to the families of troops who kill themselves in combat zones. He noted that this was a decision that was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy and he added, “I did not make it lightly….This issue is emotional, painful and complicated but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak.”

Long Campaign to Change

There has been a long-standing campaign to get the President to change the previous policy. It has been led by families which had soldiers die by suicide, various veteran groups, members of Congress and various mental health professionals, myself included, who have been publicly advocating that the President change the policy. I was drawn to this issue because I believe that the policy to exclude these families from receiving the gratitude of the country, expressed by the President, is another example of stigmatization on the basis of mental illness.

The Keesling Family

I first wrote about this issue in my blog (Psychiatry in December 2009) after reading a NY Times piece the previous month about the tragic loss which the Keesling family suffered when their 25-year-old son Chance killed himself in Iraq in June of that year. He was in his second tour of duty when the stresses of combat combined with an argument with his girlfriend over the phone led to hopelessness and suicide. Hours before his self-inflicted fatal gunshot wound the Keesling family received a rambling despondent email message from their son.

His father Gregg commented on my blog and we began a correspondence about this issue. He and his wife had decided to share some of their grief with the public in order to try to bring about a change in the Presidential policy, which was so hurtful to his, and other families who suffered similar losses. They would receive a folded flag, a letter from the Army praising their son, a rifle salute at his burial and financial death benefits. But the letter of condolence from the President of the United States, which is the symbol of the voice of the people of our country, which is sent to every other fallen soldier in war since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, was conspicuously absent. There was an increasing frequency of articles touching on this subject in the media. I wrote about it again in my blog and in the Huffington Post and received more comments than any other pieces that I have written. The House of Representatives voted in May 2010 to add an amendment sponsored by Representatives Burton and Napolitano to the Defense Authorization (HR 5136) that urged that the policy be overturned. The only response from the President was that this policy was being evaluated.

Why There Was Resistance to Change

It was difficult to say exactly why there was resistance to changing this policy. It appeared to come from certain factions within the military who had the misguided idea that such recognition would encourage suicide or would be rewarding those who were “weak” and couldn’t deal with stresses compared to those who did. These ideas were antithetical to the fact that there were so many accounts of the comrades of these soldiers who did die from suicide who were quite devastated by these losses and very supportive to the families of their fallen comrades and to their memories. There also was no psychological basis for such theories. I could not help but feel this was another example of the stigmatization of mental illness.

APA Weighs In

As a Past Speaker of the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) I believed that it was important that American Psychiatry speak out on this issue. I wrote a resolution with Dr. Roger Peele of Washington D.C. which was also co-authored by several of my colleagues which was approved by the APA Assembly in May of 2010. The Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association then approved it. In July 2010 James H. Scully Jr. M.D., CEO and Medical Director of the American Psychiatric Association wrote to President Obama representing the 37,000 psychiatric physicians. He called upon the President to eliminate the stigma and shame associated with suicide for families and survivors by reversing current policy and forwarding Presidential condolence messages to families of individuals who complete suicide while in military service. In October of 2010 the APA issued a public statement urging President Obama to reverse the policy of barring such letters. A number of other mental health groups including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Mental Health America had officially come out in favor of this policy change. APA President Carol Bernstein, M.D. issued a statement in which she noted, “The contributions of these men and women to their country are not less for having suffered a mental illness. A reversal of this policy to allow condolence letters to family members will not only help to honor the contributions and lives of the service men of women, but will also send a message that discriminating against those with mental illness is not acceptable.”

The Long-Awaited Change

The number of suicides in the military continued to go up either approaching or in some analyses exceeding the number of combat deaths. The problem of PTSD and the mental health of our combat troops became a high priority of the military but there was still no change in the Presidential policy.

Last month (June 2010) I met with Gregg Keesling for breakfast as he was in Los Angeles for a business meeting. He had received some indication that the President was reconsidering his policy, but nothing had come down yet. Senator Barbara Boxer had just sent a letter to the President, which was made public. We reflected in our discussion whether this issue might come to a head sooner if fate had led to a high profile family to lose a military family member to suicide rather than unknown but valiant people such as Gregg and his wife. It was clear that he and others like them in memory of their lost loved ones were not giving up the fight and were continuing to push for a change in the Presidential policy.

The Keeslings were notified in advance of the official announcement that henceforth the families of soldiers who die in a combat zone by suicide will receive a Presidential letter of Condolence. They understood that this would not be retroactive but were nevertheless overjoyed that the battle that they had fought in memory of their son was won. While there is nothing that relieves the pain of the loss of a child, hopefully the significance of this accomplishment will help in a small way.

I certainly am very pleased that the President has seen fit to make this change in his policy. I imagine that it was not an easy thing to do since there apparently was strong resistance in the military.

Still Unfair Discrimination

However, it should also be pointed out that there is still something inherently unfair and discriminatory about the new policy. As I understand it, letters of condolence will only be sent to families of troops who have killed themselves in a war zone.

I am certain that if a soldier is critically injured by an explosive device but does not die until he or she is back in the United States receiving treatment, his family would not be denied a letter of condolence from the President. Similarly, what if a soldier develops a mental disorder related to the stresses which he or she is experiencing in a combat zone and is transferred to the US to be treated but unfortunately succumbs to this condition and commits suicide. Shouldn’t this soldier also be considered to be a combat victim and shouldn’t his or her family also receive a letter of condolence. Sometimes changes come in small increments and perhaps this important step and the attention to this issue will help the destigmatization of all mental disorders.

Dr. Blumenfield is a Past President of the Psychiatric Society of Westchester. He is the Sidney E. Frank Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at New York Medical College and is President Elect of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry. Dr. Blumenfield lives and has a private practice in Los Angeles.

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