Are suicides considered less honorable?

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If military leaders want to stamp out the social stigma of psychological illnesses, it has to start with the commander-in-chief, writes vet Mike Purcell.

As Memorial Day approaches, Purcell, the father of a Navy vet who died by suicide in 2008, questions why President Obama is not writing personal condolence letters to the families of suicides. Purcell is also behind the Putting a Face on Suicide project.

As suicides rise among service men and women, and the nation comes to grips with the reality of their psychological wounds, why should they be accorded any less honor than those who have died of physical injuries, Purcell asks.

“This Memorial Day please remember those we have lost on ‘the other battlefield,'” Purcell writes. “Their service mattered greatly, as did they. Their families deserve to be recognized with dignity and respect, in their time of profound loss.”

Purcell is far from alone. In a raw stream of posts at the Disabled American Veterans’ Facebook page, vets — some who have attempted — and family members are raging against the unwritten condolence letter policy and what they see as deficient services for veterans.

Patrick Spry calls the policy “disgusting,” adding, “I myself have lost friends, veterans, to suicide. They themselves were honorable men for standing up in a time of war. They deserve full respect for there actions they took for our country. This memorial day we should honor all deaths. Suicide or not… RIP our brothers in arms.”

Jonathan Lubecky writes in a dispairing post: “If you return with a missing limb, or visible scars your a war hero, if you come back with PTSD or a TBI, your just crazy, and broken. I view myself as just another broken old SGT who has outlived his usefulness. I have to come up wth a reason everytime I get kicked to the ground to get up. I have been rejected by everyone, and everything. The military, the VA, the Government, work, woman, my ex-wife. I am running out of reasons.”

At the same time, the nonprofit Blue Star Families has recently premiered a public service announcement to raise awareness and fight the stigma attached to seeking help for depression and anxiety.

“There’s absolutely no reason for anyone to suffer in silence,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli said recently. “A soldier who is hit and injured by an [improvised explosive device]would never go untreated, and there’s no difference.”

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  1. After 3 tours in Iraq I finally went to seek help. This is in garrison after I have completed my third tour! Once my CSM found out he told me “I was no good to him” and started my WTU packet. I am a Senior NCO with 21 years of service. This is where it needs to change. During my tours the leaders gave the orders but we did the “dirty Work” now we asked for help and our treated as outcast. Since then I have an approved retirement. I would have thought that an Army and nation would have more respect and provide help and hope for those that needed it. This has made me angry, yet stronger to help other Service Members in desperation. Once officially separated I am providing my congressman with full names, details and events. Right now I have been threatened if I go forward I would be destroyed!

  2. Gregg Keesling on

    My family knows the pain of this policy first hand. Our son, Chancellor Keesling died by suicide in Iraq on June 19, 2009. He was 25 years old and on his second deployment. Shortly after his death, we learned of the policy and first wrote the President on August 3, 2009 asking him to reverse it. Since that time we have tried to keep up a steady drum beat for change. There has been a fair amount of media attention. All of these efforts have helped us to make the case for the policy to change and to keep this issue in the news.
    http://www.democracynow.org/2009/10/27/exclusive_parents_of_soldier_who_killed
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/11/27/soldier.suicide/index.html
    Families of Military Suicides Seek White House Condolences
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125911318179763359.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-blumenfield-md/why-hasnt-president-obama_b_450536.html

    Purcell’s public service piece and the actors and personalities who appear in this video make a good case for why the family left behind deserves an acknowledgement from the country for their sacrifice. But I would add that beyond the dignity that families like ours would be shown if the policy is changed, it would send a powerful message throughout the military ranks to take mental health issues more seriously if the President changed the policy. Suicide among those that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan has become an epidemic. The President has said on a number of occasions that it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Yet the President considers it a sign of weakness if that soldier does not ask for help and succumbs to their illness. It is my belief that many in the military consider suicide as a dishonorable way to die. That feeling goes through the ranks and makes talking about mental health issues difficult for many soldiers, like it was for my son. While there are committed military personnel trying to address this issue, it seems that there is difficulty of the message reaching down through the ranks. I believe the President’s refusal to acknowledge a family like ours plays a role in perpetuating the idea that suicide is not honorable and that it is not a serious issue. I think by changing the policy the President would send a powerful message that we cannot tolerate what is happening to our troops.

    I applaud the efforts of a Mike Purcell and this public service announcement – good work

  3. I just read “fight on another battlefield.” This a true and just statement for our great soldiers who pass this way. I appreciated seeing as a main story today on CNN.com, soldiers who pass away from this illness.

    I myself have suffered from depression for 10 years and have had four attempts. I have not served for our country, but I understand every bit of pain soldiers with this condition feel. I am proud to say my Dad did serve in the Special Forces.

    Strangly, I’ve been looking for a reason and purpose to write the President, and now have cause to ask for a reversal of the policy that prevents condolensces to families whose soldiers pass by suicide.

    May all soldiers and their families be especially blessed on this Memorial Day.

  4. Shame on our country , Shame on our government. People who served our country and are serving our country who die by suicide deserve to be acknowledge/remembered by our government and our country.

  5. When the military is pushed to edges of hell over and over and over again, is it any wonder that some just say I want out anyway I can get it. They have served our country many times over and now have given their lives for their service. Let’s get real… War is not natural for most Men and Women. We can do it for a short time but multiple deployments are too much for most. God bless these poor souls who were pushed so far that they felt they had no options.

  6. Autumn L. Fox on

    I was unaware of the policy which prohibits the U.S. Government from sending letters of condolence to families of service members who commit suicide. The code of silence attendant to seeking treatment for things like PTSD is the problem. The result, is soldiers committing suicide rather than seeking that help.

    Soldiers who commit suicide are no less honorable than anyone who dies in serving their country. What is less honorable is a nation, and a government, unwilling to change a senseless policy to recognize this fact.

    To all of those who died by their own hand due to their service for this Country I, for one, say thank you. To their families I express my deepest condolences. I am not the President but in a country where each voice should count, I am one voice expressing my sorrow and my thanks to your son or your daughter.

    Respectfully,

    Autumn L. Fox

  7. I applaud the efforts of Mr. Purcell, Mr. Keesling and others who have brought attention to this issue. It is not just those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan who are affected. There are many who serve our country to protect it in other capacities. Our son Nathan, was trained to work on a nuclear submarine. He took his own life in December shortly after arriving in Guam for his first tour. I don’t know all the causes but I believe that there is a great deal of stress, loss of sleep and other pressure brought upon you when you volunteer to serve. I think it would be only right for the President to recognize those have succumbed to the physical disease of depression while serving their country.

  8. I’m active duty military with multiple combat tours withseveral friends killed in combat.
    There is nothing wrong with the policy, it should remain intact. I understand that war is not easy but at the end of the day suicide is a choice! It’s a sad, unfortunate, heartwrenching, and selfish choice but a choice. It is a disservice and dishonor to those servicemembers who were killed in combat that people are trying to equate the two situations. In the quest to heighten awareness concerning veterans who commit suicide it is criminal to detract from those who were killed for their country.
    It is not right that someone who commits a selfish act be given honors commensurate with someone who selflessly died in service to their country.

  9. Mental health is an important aspect of overall soldier fitness. At one end of the mental health spectrum is suicide, as it involves the end of a human life. This topic is emotional and has the potential for significant conflict.
    The author here posits service members’ suicidal actions should receive national recognition from the President of the United States on the same level as service member killed in combat actions.
    The author fails to comment on service members who die in training accidents. What about them? These service members died directly in the line of their duties. Should these service members also receive recognition from the office of the President of the United States? What about a soldier that is in a fatal car wreck? Should that service member also receive recognition from the office of the President of the United States?
    As an officer in the Army of the United States, I must disagree with the author’s perspective on this issue. Let the President honor those who die in direct service to their country. I would ask you to allow the offfice of the President to make a distinction for those service members who die in combat. The office of President does not dishonor service members who die in a training accident, car wreck, or suicide. Instead, the office has chosen to elevate those members of the armed services who give their life in direct support of the nation’s interests.
    For those who say I do not understand, I would argue that may be true. I have served in Iraq, and had my peers and subordinates killed in action. I have worked with soldiers and peers that attempted suicide (some successful, some not). I have worked with soldiers that died in a tragic training accident, and I have worked with soldiers that died in other events outside of military action. Each one of the lives lost was tragic for the family, but one aspect is different among all of these cases. The office of the President recognized the first case, killed in action, or at least a combat theater, as being different. As such, the office recognizes that difference.
    If we honor every loss of life in the same way as a death in combat, then have we really honored the service member who died in combat? The office of the President recognizes we, as the nation the President represents, want to differentiate, and honor, those that selflessly gave their life for a nation.
    A service member who commits suicide very well may be a combat casualty. The problem is differentiating between service members who come back from Iraq, for example, with severe issues from those that had pre-existing issues. Does a distinction need to be made here? How would you do it? The Army is trying to provide resources for service members before they escalate to suicidal actions. The army’s emphasis on resiliency training, militaryonesource, and contracted health professionals (outside of the DoD) are some of the programs aimed at enabling service members to seek the help they may need.
    I request that you honor those that give their life in service to the nation (killed in action) by allowing their families to continue as the only families receiving written recognition from the office of the President of the United States. Do not dilute this recognition by extending it to training accidents, car wrecks, and suicides.
    MAJ Travis Rayfield
    CGSC Student
    The views expressed in this post are of the author only and do not reflect the official views of any federal entity or agency.

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