WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 8, 2011) -- Family members of Soldiers who commit suicide in combat zones will now receive letters of condolence from the president -- just like families of those who die in other ways.

“Every day we have honored those fallen in combat, now, in accordance with our commander-in-chief, we will honor all those who have fallen in service to our great nation,” said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, in a White House blog post about the change in policy.

The White House officially changed policy July 6, 2011, a move in keeping with the military's efforts to eliminate any stigma associated with servicemembers seeking treatment.

“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,” President Obama said in a statement.

The secretary of the Army and the chief of staff of the Army have already been sending letters of condolence to the next of kin of Soldiers who commit suicide. Since January 2010, they have been sending letters of condolence to families of all Soldiers who die on active duty, without regard to cause of death.

Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, has been fighting the stigma of invisible war wounds -- like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress -- since he took office. In his White House blog, he recalled “the greatest regret” of his military career:

“I lost 169 Soldiers during that year-long deployment,” he wrote of commanding the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. “However, the monument we erected at Fort Hood, Texas, in memoriam lists 168 names. I approved the request of others not to include the name of the one Soldier who committed suicide. I deeply regret my decision.”

Chiarelli said he supports sending letters to all grieving families no matter how their loved ones died. He called it a “monumental step” toward reducing stigma.

The Army confirmed 125 suicides in 2010, and continued to research 31 more potential active-duty suicide cases beyond January 2011. A 2009 Department of Defense press release on suicides reported 102 confirmed for that year and 127 confirmed for 2008.

A number of new Army programs target Soldier mental fitness. For instance, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is a multi-level program that starts with the online Global Assessment Tool, a test of individual social, emotional and other types of fitness and includes resilience training for Soldiers.

This program is two years old, but one element became more accessible in June, with the release of a new goal-setting application for iPhones and iPads.

Progress in the area of mental health is typically slow, but results of the Joint Mental Health Advisory Team VII survey, known as J-MHAT 7, released in May, suggest progress is being made. Soldiers reported “lower barriers” to behavioral health care in Afghanistan.

“I’ve been committed to removing the stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war,” Obama said in a statement about the letters of condolence, “which is why I’ve worked to expand our mental health budgets, and ensure that all our men and women in uniform receive the care they need.”

Chiarelli agreed in his White House Blog: “We remain committed to raising awareness, helping individuals increase their resiliency, while ensuring they have access to the right support services and resources. That said, if we hope to truly have an impact we must continue to do everything we can to eliminate the stigma.”

The Army offers suicide prevention resources at http://www.behavioralhealth.army.mil/sprevention/index.html.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, offers resources for grieving military families online at http://www.taps.org/.

Page last updated Tue July 12th, 2011 at 06:58