In a reversal, the Obama administration announced on Tuesda that it would begin to send condolence letters to families of soldiers who died by suicide.
The military has a longstanding policy of not sending families of suicides the same condolence letters that go out after soldiers are slain in combat, and the White House had been reviewing that policy since 2009. Ultimately, the government sided with families and lawmakers who charged that the policy upheld a culture of viewing such deaths as shameful.
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, an official statement said. 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.
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. A group of U.S. senators led by Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., wrote President Obama in May urging him to reverse the policy of not sending condolence letters.
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 U.S. 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.