President reverses condolence letter policy to include troop suicides

In a break with longstanding tradition, the president will now send condolence letters to families of those service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone, the White House announced on Wednesday.

In a statement released by the White House, President Obama said the decision was made "after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly."

The policy change signifies a new understanding of the wounds of war, some of which are mental. "They didn't die because they were weak," Obama said.

There was no mention of letters to the families of service members who commit suicide after they've returned home.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, who has been vocal in addressing the military's "invisible wounds" of war, said the policy change is a step toward removing the stigma associated with behavioral health conditions.

"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," Chiarelli said in a statement.

Chiarelli also recounted his personal connection to suicide. The general, who commanded the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2004-05, lost 169 soldiers while deployed. Chiarelli approved the monument erected in memoriam at Fort Hood, Texas, but only 168 soldiers' names were listed.

"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, calling the decision the "greatest regret" of his military career.

According to an Army report released in 2010, 160 soldiers killed themselves in 2009, and the suicide rate reached 20.2 per 100,000, up from about 10 per 100,000 since 2004. The rate for the Marine Corps was the highest of the armed forces at nearly 22 per 100,000. The Air Force and Navy rates were around 12 per 100,000; the civilian rate is typically around 19.2 per 100,000.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit that serves the families of military service members, applauded the president's decision but said in a statement that the administration did not go far enough in adjusting its condolence-letter policy.

"While expanding the policy today to include the families of those who die by suicide in combat zones is a very important step that TAPS supports, the White House presidential condolence letter policy continues to exclude many families who have made the ultimate sacrifice in military service to America," the statement said.

In an interview with National Journal published last month, Chiarelli said the Army was making strides in addressing the issue of suicide.

"I definitely think that we have made progress, but we're fighting an uphill battle. The underlying cause, the stress on the force, the things that are causing the stress on the force, still remain when you have operational-tempo levels that are at what they are right now, especially after 10 years of conflict," Chiarelli said.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.