In a dramatic reversal of a long-standing policy, the White House announced today that President Obama will begin sending condolence letters to the families of armed servicemen and servicewomen who kill themselves in combat zones.
In recent years, Obama has been under pressure to include the families of these war-zone suicides among those families who receive condolence letters when a family member is killed in the line of duty. But the military's complicated relationship to dealing with mental health problems among its troops and the stigma around mental health treatment among service members made recognizing these suicides problematic.
In a statement released this morning, Obama noted as much, referencing the "wounds of war -- seen and unseen" and "the stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war":
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.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides among the deployed are a massive problem for the U.S. military. Part of the problem is PTSD itself. For those who have experienced it first-hand (I'm among them), the traumatized brain's "disorder" is difficult to describe and the nature of the syndrome inhibits seeking treatment. While PTSD and suicide are not necessarily conjoined, the stress of a combat zone can be overwhelming.
Over the last year, I started interviewing combat veterans about their experiences. The War Project features veterans and their stories, some of which include PTSD and suicidal tendencies. It remains something of a mystery as to why some individuals develop PTSD and some do not. What remains abundantly clear is that it has nothing to do with being "weak." Rather, I believe, it is a constellation of factors: DNA, upbringing, the ability to handle stress -- particularly when that stress involves IEDs, unseen attackers, and RPGs.
While it's fortunate that Obama has taken the opportunity to recognize the unique challenges faced by those who fight our wars, his gesture slights those suicides who go unrecognized because they did not take their own lives in a combat zone. Oftentimes, PTSD manifests after a delay, leaving veterans who return home and find themselves suffering its symptoms at a loss for getting proper treatment in the VA's tangled and notoriously slow health system. But because their suicides happened on U.S. soil, their deaths will go unrecognized by the President.
I reached out to Jaeson Parsons, an Operation Iraqi Freedom combat medic veteran, for his reaction. Post-deployment, Parsons was diagnosed with PTSD. After a VA psychiatrist suggested Parsons get a "hobby," he created the Graffiti of War Project, which collects photographs of artwork created by those who are deployed -- from blast wall graffiti to Porta-Potty scribbles.
Though this is a step in the right direction for this administration and the government as a whole in terms of reducing the stigma associated with mental health costs of these conflicts on our military men and women, it doesn’t address the real problem which is the stigma that is still a very real part of Company level command. Until the military, specifically the Army and Marines, can change the unofficial policy of this stigma that goes on in the squads, platoons and companies of our warfighters, no condolence letter, even that signed by God himself, will fix what is currently broken within the ranks of our fighting forces.
In addition, what about the other 71% of suicides that are committed after the deployment to a combat zone? Are they any less deserving of a formal letter from our President? I think not. In my eyes and that of thousands of our veterans, this is just another ploy to gain votes at the expense of the United States Service Member.
As the New York Times notes:
In recent years, the military suicide rate has been above the rate for the general population, a reflection, experts say, of the stress of rapid-tempo combat operations and multiple deployments. But the majority of those suicides, more than 430 last year among active-duty personnel, have been committed outside combat zones, mostly in the United States.