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This week, the White House announced that it will reverse longstanding policy and begin sending condolence letters to families of servicemembers who commit suicide in a combat theater, similar to the letters sent for those who are killed by enemy action.

While it is easy to understand the sentiment that guided this decision, and I can relate as an Army officer who has dealt with combat deaths and suicides, it is the wrong policy for a number of reasons. First, it implicitly links suicide with the heroic act of giving one’s life for his or her country. Suicide is a devastating blow to a family and a military unit, and we should not confer upon it the same honor as a combat death. To do so simultaneously legitimizes suicide and weakens the significance of a presidential signature.

Worst of all, the new policy creates a perverse incentive for suicide. A servicemember struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder might find it more acceptable to commit suicide knowing his family will receive a presidential letter than to face the long, daunting road of mental health therapy that one will face upon his or her return home. In this regard, the policy does quite the opposite of destigmatizing mental health disorders; instead, it destigmatizes the act of suicide itself, a most unintended consequence.

The policy also does not distinguish between the various reasons one would commit suicide. While post-traumatic stress disorder and other factors directly linked to combat are common causes, so too are reasons far from the battlefield, such as marital or financial troubles at home. The subjectivity inherent in identifying the cause for suicide is yet another reason for not providing condolence letters in these cases.

Finally, it curiously does not apply to servicemembers who commit suicide upon their return home, even if it is directly linked to their deployment. Why honor this act if it occurred in Iraq or Afghanistan but not at Fort Campbell or Camp Pendleton?

The previous policy spanned multiple administrations of both political parties and was in place for a reason. It is a difficult issue for all involved, especially when hearing the heartbreaking pleas of the servicemember’s loved ones. A servicemember’s life is the most precious of our nation’s resources; let’s not risk more lives with this well-meaning but mistake-prone policy.

Capt. Nathan D. Crook

Arlington, Va.


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