I commend the decision of our Commander-in-Chief, President Obama, reversing the long-standing policy of not sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone. The greatest regret of my military career was as Commanding General of the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2004-05. I lost 169 Soldiers during that year-long deployment. However, the monument we erected at Fort Hood, Texas in memoriam lists 168 names. I approved the request of others not to include the name of the one Soldier who committed suicide. I deeply regret my decision.
The brave individuals who wear the cloth of this great Nation in combat deserve our deepest gratitude. It is remarkable all they have accomplished. I am incredibly proud of them and of their families. That said, they are tired. The persistent high operational tempo of this war, the terrible things some have seen or experienced in combat, have undoubtedly taken a toll on them. Many are struggling with the ‘invisible wounds’ of this war, including traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. Any attempt to characterize these individuals as somehow weaker than others is simply misguided.
Unfortunately, the long-standing stigma associated with these and other behavioral health conditions continues to preclude some from seeking or receiving available help. The United States Army is working very, very hard, in partnership with the National Institute of Mental Health and our sister services, to better understand the challenge of suicide and to do everything we can to effectively reduce the incidence of it across our Force. We remain committed to raising awareness, helping individuals increase their resiliency, while ensuring they have access to the right support services and resources. That said, if we hope to truly have an impact we must continue to do everything we can to eliminate the stigma.
The policy change instituted by President Obama directing that letters of condolence be written to the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone represents a monumental step in this direction. It acknowledges that the service rendered by these individuals, as well as the service and sacrifices made by their family, deserve the same recognition given to those men and women who die as a result of enemy action. Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly a decade ago, over 6,000 men and women have paid the ultimate price for freedom. 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.