White House to officially acknowledge military suicides
When a solider dies in a combat zone, his or her family receives a letter of condolence from the President. The letter recognizes the soldier’s service and ultimate sacrifice for the country. For every type of casualty—accidental or combat —there is a different type of letter. There are, however, no letters for families who lose a loved one to suicide in a combat zone. Suicide, you see, is not only tragic—it is dishonorable.
But the Obama administration is starting to change that. On Tuesday the Obama administration reversed a decades-old policy of not sending White House letters of condolences to the families of members of the military who committed suicide. Obama said of the decision: “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 step is something that not only activists, such as the families of military suicide victims and many legislators, but even the cold hard numbers have been crying out for. The rate of suicide among the military is significantly higher than the rate among the general population. There are months were more soldiers commit suicide than die in battle. All in all, military men and women are up to twice as likely as civilians to commit suicide, and one in six military suicides occurs in the combat zone.
The acknowledgment of military combat zone suicides recognizes that the loss of life still had meaning for the country–that that life had value and that that death was a tragedy. It is a step towards helping heal “invisible” wounds of war at home and on the front line. Receiving such acknowledgment may help some (if not many) survivors to come to terms with their loss.
But this acknowledgment is however just a small battle in the fight for mental health care for American soldiers. The current state of mental health care for American soldiers is so bad, that a US Appellate Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional. Our soldiers need more than acknowledgment when it is clearly too late, they need professional support.
Letting these tragic deaths be acknowledged, moving away from categorizing suicide as an unmentionable, dishonorable death, is a welcome step in the direction of reducing the stigma around mental health. But the government needs to put in the dollars and cents needed to really support our troops—because the “invisible wounds of war” can be the most deadly.