With the U.S. military stretched thin over many active conflicts over the past ten years, it is not surprising that those soldiers who do see combat face severe mental health issues (to say nothing of the thousands who are forced to redeploy to war zones). According to a Department of Defense report released last August, more than 1100 soldiers committed suicide while serving abroad during the period from 2005 to 2009, and there were reportedly 1700 suicide attempts in 2009 alone.
In his statement released yesterday, President Obama said:
As Commander in Chief, I am deeply grateful for the service of all our men and women in uniform, and grieve for the loss of those who suffer from the wounds of war – seen and unseen. Since taking office, I’ve been committed to removing the stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war, which is why I’ve worked to expand our mental health budgets, and ensure that all our men and women in uniform receive the care they need.
As a next step and in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the military chain of command, I have also decided to reverse a long-standing policy of not sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone. This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and 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. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change. Our men and women in uniform have borne the incredible burden of our wars, and we need to do everything in our power to honor their service, and to help them stay strong for themselves, for their families and for our nation.
This policy change is a huge turn in the right direction in acknowledging the serious mental struggles that our soldiers often face in the wake of policy decisions that put them in active combat year after year. I hope that it will give their families some measure of comfort in knowing that their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brother and sisters served just as honorably in the eyes of the United States government as anyone else. And I sincerely hope that this is not a final step, but one of many changes in the way the government handles the mental illnesses plaguing its servicemen and women.