Rumsfeld to personally sign all condolence letters

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 17, 2004

(See Secretary Rumsfeld's statement at end of story)

WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will begin personally signing condolence letters sent to families of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, after receiving criticism over his use of mechanical signatures.

In a statement provided to Stars and Stripes on Thursday, Rumsfeld tacitly admitted that in the past he has not personally signed the letters, but said he was responsible for writing and approving each of the 1,000-plus messages sent to the fallen soldiers’ families.

“I have directed that in the future I sign each letter,” he said in the statement.

“I am deeply grateful for the many letters I have received from the families of those who have been killed in the service of our country, and I recognize and honor their personal loss.”

In a separate statement, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said, “In the interest of ensuring timely contact with grieving family members, he has not individually signed each letter.”

Department of Defense officials for the past few weeks had said only that the content of the letters was private.

But several families of troops killed overseas said they were sure the notes they received had not been signed by hand, and said they were angry that Rumsfeld was not paying attention to their loss.

“To me it’s an insult, not only as someone who lost a loved one but also as someone who served in Iraq,” Army Spc. Ivan Medina told Stripes.

“This doesn’t show our families the respect they deserve,” said Medina, a New York resident whose twin brother, Irving, was killed in a roadside bombing in Iraq this summer.

Illinois resident Bette Sullivan, whose son John was killed in November 2003 while working as an Army mechanic in Iraq, was incensed when she, her son’s wife and her grandchildren received the exact same condolence letter with the apparently stamped signature.

“If each family receives two copies, how many signatures does that amount to?” she asked in an e-mail response to Stripes. “I can understand the use of stamped signatures for his brothers’ mementos, but for those of his wife and children and mother? No, no, no.”

Retired Army Col. David Hackworth, an author and frequent critic of the Department of Defense, publicly criticized Rumsfeld in a syndicated column earlier this month for not reviewing each KIA letter personally.

He called the fake signatures “like having it signed by a monkey.”

“Using those machines is pretty common, but it shouldn’t be in cases of those who have died in action,” he said. “How can [DOD officials] feel the emotional impact of that loss if they’re not even looking at the letters?”

Hackworth said he objected to using the stamped signatures for promotion and commendation letters as well, but said not personally handling the condolence letters is a much more serious offense.

Family members had expressed similar concerns to Stripes about President Bush’s signature on his condolence letters, but Allen Abney, spokesman for the president, said that Bush does personally sign the letters sent from the White House.

Secretary Rumsfeld's statement

Statement by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on condolences to servicemembers and their loved ones, as provided to Stars and Stripes:

“It is a solemn privilege of the many of us in the Department to meet with U.S. forces and families who have experienced injury or death in the defense of our country.

“During visits with wounded forces and their families at Walter Reed Army Hospital or at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, I have drawn inspiration from the dignity and resolve of these wonderful young Americans and their loved ones.

“Over the past years, my wife, Joyce, and I have met with several hundred wounded troops and their families during visits to intensive care units, therapy facilities, and their rooms in military hospitals in the United States and abroad.

“During visits to military installations, I have met with still others during their visits to the Pentagon.

“Joyce and I also have met together and individually with spouses and children of those killed in action.

“At the earliest moment in the global war on terror, I determined that it is important that military families who have lost loved ones in hostile actions receive a letter from me directly.

“I wrote and approved the now more than 1000 letters sent to family members and next of kin of each of the servicemen and women killed in military action. While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter.

“I am deeply grateful for the many letters I have received from the families of those who have been killed in the service of our country, and I recognize and honor their personal loss.”