ON WEDNESDAY, President Obama reversed a long-standing tradition of not sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide during deployments in combat zones. He has made a just call.
For years, policy unfairly stigmatized these American patriots as well as their grieving comrades and families. “They didn’t die because they were weak,” Mr. Obama said. We laud the president’s courage to speak for the fallen who suffered mental trauma, too often without receiving the health care they deserved.
Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, joined the president in embracing the change. Gen. Chiarelli blogged on WhiteHouse.gov that his “greatest regret” as a military commander was not memorializing a soldier who took his own life.
An Army report issued last year tallied 160 soldiers who committed suicide in 2009, a rate of 20.2 per 100,000. The Marine Corps suffered a rate of 22 for every 100,000 members. It’s only right that their families will receive thanks for their service and condolences for their deaths.
That’s hardly enough, as the military well understands. The efforts that the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs have recently intensified to deal with mental trauma and potential suicides must be maintained. One component, until recently neglected, is tracking and providing assistance to current service members and veterans who have tried to kill themselves.
The organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America surveyed its members last year and found that 59 percent reported knowing a veteran who had committed suicide. Two other depressing and potentially relevant findings: 45 percent of these members reported having “an unsatisfactory experience with the VA claims process,” and 17 percent identified themselves as being unemployed.
There is no magic cure to prevent suicide, inside the military or in civilian life. Wider awareness of suicide and mental illness is needed within and beyond the military; this problem is neither solely within the Army’s control nor invariably the result of the stresses of war and family separation. But at a time of budget cuts and austerity pledges, mental-health care for service members and veterans should be protected and expanded. In addition, the administration should pursue partnerships with nonprofit groups, corporations and other government agencies that are also trying to address these needs.
Mr. Obama and the Defense Department deserve credit for acknowledging with dignity the contributions of all service members and the unbearable losses of families of all the fallen. An even more meaningful tribute will come in ensuring that fewer such letters have to be written.