Memorial Day offers an annual occasion for honoring soldiers who died serving their country. Some of them fall not in combat but by their own hands, victims of the grinding stresses of war. Elected officials and parents charge that these soldiers are being denied the honors they deserve.
Suicide claimed 434 active duty personnel in 2010, continuing a gruesome rising trend that has seen more than 1,500 troops die by suicide between 2005 and 2010. While the military has begun paying attention and devoting more resources to the problem, military suicide it is still stigmatized. Families of soldiers who have died by suicide do not receive letters of condolence, and a group of U.S. senators led by Barbara Boxer (D-CA) last week wrote President Obama asking him to reverse this policy.
Unfortunately, perpetuating a policy that denies condolence letters to families of service members who die by suicide only serves to reinforce this stigma by overshadowing the contributions of an individual's life with the unfortunate nature of his or her death, the letter said. In addition, it further alienates families who are already struggling to cope with the death of a loved one. It is simply unacceptable for the United States to be sending the message to these families that somehow their loved ones' sacrifices are less important.
Greg Keesling wrote a wrenching op-ed for CNN in which he described his struggle to highlight the issue in the wake of his son Chancellor's death by suicide. Kessling noted that the White House promised a review of the letter withholding in 2009, but has yet to recommend a shift in policy.
It is my belief that many in the military consider suicide a dishonorable way to die, Keesling wrote. That feeling goes through the ranks and makes talking about mental health issues difficult for many soldiers, like it was for my son.
A 2010 report by the Department of Defense's Suicide Prevention Task Force described the immense strain of simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, portraying a military that is stretched thin and full of soldiers exhausted by multiple deployments.
In the judgment of the Task Force, the cumulative effects of all these factors are contributing significantly to the increase in the incidence of suicide and without effective action will persist well beyond the duration of the current operations and deployments, the report said.
While the report commended the military for trying to address the problem, it noted that suicide prevention programs were often inefficient, hastily planned and poorly understood.
The specter of suicide does not haunt only active duty members. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated recently that veterans account for about a fifth of the 30,000 or so annual suicides in the U.S.