UPDATED JULY 6, 1:04 P.M.
WASHINGTON — Both the president and defense secretary will now send condolence letters to the families of troops who commit suicide in combat zones, part of a broader effort to destigmatize the mental health costs of war.
In a statement Wednesday, President Barack Obama called the decision “emotional, painful and complicated,” but also said the change was necessary to recognize the heroism and internal struggles facing servicemembers.
“These Americans served our nation bravely,” he said. “They didn’t die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change.”
Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will follow the administration-wide policy and begin sending condolence letters to families of suicide victims deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat operations.
Previously, neither the president nor defense secretary sent letters to families of military suicide victims, either deployed or stationed in the United States. Leaders from the individual services did send those letters in some instances, but did not follow any specific policy.
Obama said that he grieves “for the loss of those who suffer from the wounds of war, seen and unseen.”
Military family groups and mental health advocates have been lobbying for the change for years, and a group of senators petitioned the White House earlier this year to finalize its internal review on the issue and start sending out the letters.
On Wednesday, they praised the change.
“The White House deserves a big thank you today for erasing the final stigma around suicide,” said John Madigan, senior director for public policy at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“Before, if you had a heart attack, or you drove drunk and were killed while serving in a combat zone, your family was sent a condolence letter. But for suicides they weren’t. This really hits the bull’s-eye on getting to that stigma.”
Paul Reickhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said, “It’s long past time for our nation to formally recognize the loss of service members” to suicide. Officials there also called for a larger push by the administration to address the underlying causes of military suicides, an issue the Pentagon has struggled with in recent years.
According to Defense Department statistics, the military saw 434 suicides in 2010, compared with 462 combat deaths. More than 1,500 troops committed suicide between 2005 and 2010.
The new policy will only cover suicides that occur in the future, and officials from the White House and Defense Department don’t have any plans to send letters out to families who have already lost a servicemember to suicide.
The policy also does not cover troops who take their own lives while stationed in other areas. Ami Neiberger-Miller, spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said she hopes to see that expanded in coming months, but for now the new condolence letter policy is a dramatic improvement.
“These families often feel like their servicemember’s death is not as acknowledged by society,” she said. “They don’t get the same recognition. They’re excluded from war memorials and honor rolls. And not getting a condolence letter adds to their pain.
“So getting the letter tells them that their country is here for them. It’s a step in the right direction.”