This week, President Obama began doing what no president in history has done: officially recognize the mental health tolls of war by writing letters to the families of veterans who committed suicide while on duty.
Explaining Obama's decision, a senior White House official told Politico:
“The president feels strongly that we need to destigmatize the mental health costs of war to prevent these tragic deaths, and changing this policy is part of that process.”
The White House has been eying a change in this policy since 2009, and this week, after an "exhaustive" review, Obama finally started sitting down and signing letters, officially recognizing that those who take their own lives – that those who can no longer endure the pain and traumas induced by war – are indeed casualties.
Obama's change in policy is an incredibly empathetic move, and the right one. The White House and our President deserves to be congratulated.
Yes, Obama's military policies place such soldiers in positions of combat, and yes there are those who may want to critique Obama for such positions, rather than praise him for this change in policy.
However, I don't think that critiquing one precludes praising the other, and I for one am extremely proud of our administration for reversing what I considered to be a cruel and painful policy, wherein suicide victims – soldiers serving our country – were not recognized by the U.S. for their sacrifice.
Now, that has changed.
Over the past 5 years, over 1,000 service members have taken their lives, and in the Army, over 20% of those occurred in combat zones. This new policy will cover those who tragically take their own lives while actively serving in such zones, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gregg Keesling, who lost his son two years ago to suicide and has been instrumental in asking this administration to change its policy, will be recognized by the White House for his role in the policy's reversal. Talking about his son, Keesling said:
“He was a good soldier and that’s the part that I want to know — that the country appreciates that he fought he did everything that he was asked to do,” Keesling said of his son, Chance Keesling, who was in Iraq when he died. “It didn’t turn out well for him, but at least this country could write a simple letter and that president represents our country and just say thank you for our son’s service.”
Kudos to the White House. It's heartening to see moments of humanity in our halls of power.
Author's Note: I'd like to add that this move by the President, while not affecting me directly, feels deeply personal, for I both know military veterans who suffer from PTSD and mental illness, and have suffered from a conflict-induced PTSD (when my wife was injured in a terrorist attack). I'm not making an equivalence in experiences – I simply wanted to offer that this diary was written because of how deeply I appreciate Obama's act of empathy as one who has both witnessed and (tangentially) experienced the ravages of war and the mental toll such ravages can take upon the mind.