Military Suicides Not Worthy of Condolence Letter from the President?

A few short hours ago, I finished talking to my little sister in South Korea via Skype when I came across an article on CNN.com that disturbed me. According to the article, it seems there is a long-standing policy of not writing letters of condolence to families of soldiers who commit suicide. Those who know me know that I am an anti-war activist, but that I reserve the right to support military intervention so long as it is being done to protect those who cannot do so themselves. While our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is something many do not champion, some, including myself, do support our troops, especially when, as is the case with me, many of them are young men and women I once tutored in high school. And it is because of them that I feel compelled to react to this ridiculous policy.

According to the Washington Post, over 5,290 mothers, fathers, husbands and wives have received a visit from a military chaplain announcing the tragic death of a loved one. Over 3,100 of them were under 25 years of age, some having served for several years with only a few week’s furlough to visit friends and family. For those lucky enough to return home alive, life is never the same. Many veterans arrive broken in mind and spirit and in dire need of psychological treatment. Like them, many of us assumed war in Iraq and Afghanistan would be similar to the first Iraq War just 10 years before. Like then, we knew exactly who our enemy was. But soon after the fall of Baghdad the second time around, the enemy our soldiers were used to fighting were no longer wearing uniforms, holding a gun or sitting in tanks. They were merchants, school teachers, police officers and Iraqi veterans determined to drive the US and her allies out of Iraq. For the average soldier, everyone was suspect. Like them, the people of Iraq were potential targets, and so they spent every moment on duty fearful that their end would come with explosives packed in a taxicab’s trunk, a horse-drawn carriage carrying wood, an ambulance racing to an unknown destination, or attached to a person’s body.

The enemy in post-Saddam Iraq was a formidable adversary willing to kill their own people without humanity and remorse. Who can forget the images we saw on television of soldiers and civilians getting their heads cut off by the militia, of bombs exploding in mosques, local markets, schools, or humanitarian compounds, destroying everyone and everything in sight.

Soldier’s in Iraq and Afghanistan lived with that reality on a daily basis. While I’m sure the need to quit that profession and return home was great, many had no choice but to remain. For those that did, the level of stress and pressure to stay and serve out the remainder of their tour led to their decision to commit suicide. Coming home early was not an option for many. To do so, they knew they would lose that lucrative financial incentive promised to them when they were being recruited between classes in school — money they hoped to use to help their parents desperate for money to pay their mortgages or medical bills. Those that came home for a break only to discover later that their spouses or girlfriends were now expecting a new child knew they were going to need whatever medical plan offered to them by the military. Add to that constant changes to military commanders on the field, a president undermining the recommendations of his advisers, and executive decisions that extended a soldier’s presence in Iraq by years and one can start to imagine how strained their lives must have been that they felt suicide was their only option. But are their actions such that a sitting president should not take the time to comfort those who also lost a loved one back home? Did these men and women not serve their country with valor and distinction (those that did not tarnish the uniform by commit flagrant acts of atrocity)? Were their contributions to the fight less deserving of recognition by the President?

Parents of soldiers who committed suicide claim that their sons and daughters were treated with respect and dignity by their respective branches of the military. Most of them received help and support during the preparations for the burial. Most if not all received a full honor guard, and each family member was presented with a flag on behalf of the President and a grateful nation. So why did they not receive a letter from the president offering his condolence on behalf of the country? If their commanding officers are able to write a letter talking about a soldier’s heroic gestures, as is the case with most soldiers killed in combat, why can’t the Commander in Chief?

Let’s not forget that just like the families of the over 5,290 soldiers who came home in flag-wrapped metal coffins who received words of encouragement, support and gratitude for their contributions, so must the loved ones of the estimated 192 active and non-active Army soldiers and 30 to 40 Marines who died in 2009 alone from suicide. Over 890 soldiers have taken their own lives since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. And that’s just the ones we know off. A CBS News investigation reported that in 2005, 45 states reported a total of 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s about 130 souls per week for an entire year.

The disparity between these two figures is symptomatic to a bigger problem plaguing the Pentagon, and it is an issue that they will have to address immediately if young men and women are ever expected to enlist and serve out their full tour of duty. But until that happens, in the meantime, the President, I think, should consider the following. A fallen soldier is not the only one who loses a life. A mother and father also lose a child, a wife a husband, a child a father, and a nation a soldier. Regardless of whether we find any honor in the soldier’s death, we must remember that by honoring the soldier we honor the family who also sacrificed greatly. As commander in chief, a president’s job is to honor the fallen. As President of the United States, his or her job is to thank the family for their sacrifice. And as a human being, the president’s job is to support and comfort those in need during such trying times. What better way to honor the memory of a serviceman or woman than by taking the time to write a short letter?

About 145 years ago, President Lincoln is said to have written a letter regarded by many Lincoln scholars as one of the most memorable ever written by a sitting president. In it, Lincoln thanked and consoled a mother of 5 sons killed in battle. The note was short and to the point, but it was a letter that I suspect may have had an impact on Mrs. Bixby. Suicide or not, the parents of the 192 soldiers that died this year alone would have been moved to know that they too laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

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