President Obama, pictured earlier this year, said of troops who have committed… (Olivier Douliery, McClatchy-Tribune )
Reporting from Washington — Breaking with a long-standing unwritten policy, President Obama announced Wednesday that he would send condolence letters to families of military service members who commit suicide or die of an accident in a combat zone.
"This issue is emotional, painful and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely," Obama said of the suicide deaths in a statement. "They didn't die because they are weak. And the fact that they didn't get the help they needed must change."
The White House said the decision to alter the long-standing practice of honoring only combat deaths came after "a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy." The condolence letter policy is an emotionally charged one, especially for surviving family members who say it has left them feeling that their sacrifice is somehow less significant.
Troop family support groups and mental health advocates applauded the policy change.
"This is an important step that can help eliminate the stigma associated with suicide and provide valuable emotional support to families," said Dr. David Shern, president and chief executive of Mental Health America, one of several groups that started a petition campaign to change the policy.
Connie Scott, a volunteer in military suicide support groups, said it would be a comfort for grieving family members.
Her son, Army Pfc. Brian Matthew Williams, took his life the day before he was supposed to return to Iraq in 2007. He was 20.
"It absolutely would have meant a lot to me at that time to have known that Brian was respected and that his death mattered to other people," Scott said.
Suicide is a growing problem for the U.S. military. About 271 service members killed themselves in 2010, up from 151 a decade earlier. A third of those deaths occurred in combat zones.
Because her son did not die in a combat zone, Scott's family still would not receive a letter under the new policy.
"We suffered a loss too," Scott said. "I'm grateful for this step, but we have a lot of work to do."
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a peer-based support group for military families, criticized the decision to draw a line between families of service members who die on foreign soil and those who die in the U.S. "For families, that does not go unnoticed and is often hurtful," the group said.
The Obama administration emphasized the importance of promoting mental health resources in the armed services.