The families of military men and women killed in combat receive a condolence letter from the president. While perhaps a small thing in the context of such a loss, it is a gesture of respect and an official recognition that their loved one died in honorable service to the nation.
However, it had been long-standing White House policy not to send such a letter to the families of military personnel who commit suicide. The thinking, supported by some veterans groups and senior officers, was that honoring those who died at their own hands with presidential letters could be seen as sanctioning suicide.
In fact, that exclusion left already grieving families feeling slighted. Worse, it fostered and perpetuated ancient prejudices and misconceptions about mental illness.
Military service often involves enduring hardships. But a culture that rewards physical and mental toughness can also have difficulty dealing with what are not obvious wounds. Where the most prized values are loyalty, duty and courage, mental illness can too easily be mistaken for a character flaw.
It is not. Mental illness is just that an illness. It is every bit as real, as uninvited and as potentially debilitating as malaria, a severed limb or a gunshot wound. It is just that for most of us it can also be difficult to recognize. Depression can be mistaken for sloth, mania for an excitable nature. And that very confusion even in those suffering themselves can foster the despair that can lead to suicide.
Moreover, mental illness is part of a syndrome, a suite of effects and conditions that is emblematic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, put it this way: 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.
In a statement accompanying the change to the letters policy, the president reinforced that point. But he also added, the fact that they didnt get the help they needed has to change.
That is the key. The letters change is welcome, but it will be far more meaningful if it means military personnel suffering from mental illness will be ensured the attention and care they deserve. Honoring those who die in service to their country all of them is the right thing to do. Working to keep fewer of them from needlessly suffering is even better. The presidents change of heart on letters of condolence should not be seen as the final word, but as a step in the right direction. And that step should be followed by continuing action.