Written by Joshua Patton,
In the waning months of winter, in early 2000, an acquaintance of mine named Specialist Walker* stood in front of the base chaplain – a hard-looking man with a kind soul and a Ranger tab on his arm – and pointed his nine-millimeter Army-issued pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. All of us on Eagle Base were surprised and saddened by this. Of course the violence inherent in the act is disturbing enough, but Eagle Base was small enough that everyone was well-known to the other soldiers and airmen on-post. He had been a frequent visitor to the Army Post-Office, always wearing a smile and always friendly. In public he exhibited none of the signs of a soldier at-risk for suicide, but then again none of us were really looking for them. There are far too many stories like Walker’s, and they have become all too familiar to those within the veterans’ community. This has stayed with me over the past dozen years, but it was only recently that I realized that when he died, his family received nothing in the way of condolences from the President. He served with dignity and honor, yet when he pulled that trigger it was as if he was disavowed by the Commander-in-Chief.
Gregg Kresling of Indianapolis also felt that pain firsthand. His son Chancellor joined the Army after 9/11 after he graduated from high school. Six years later in 2009, after multiple deployments and personal turmoil back in the states, Chancellor Kresling committed suicide. Gregg and his wife were the two people at the front of the push to change the policy that prevented military suicides from receiving condolences letter from the President as they would had their child died from physical wounds instead of as a result of mental injuries.
In addition to the campaign by the Kresling family, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) pressed the Obama Administration to end a practice they called “insensitive.” The Obama Administration announced on Tuesday, July 5, 2011 that they would end the policy and would send out condolences letters to servicemembers who commit suicide while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation New Dawn, or other combat operations. The move was bittersweet for the Kreslings, the policy is not retroactive but one has to hope there is some consolation for them in the fact that they spoke up, caught the ear of Washington and they actually listened.
And while this is a positive step forward, there are some who think that it doesn’t go far enough. According to statistics in the Battleland Blog on Time.com 73 percent of military suicides occur not in combat, but back in the United States. This would mean that those soldiers would not receive condolences letters. But then again, neither would the death of a soldier in the rear killed during training or otherwise. On the other side of the issue, one veteran told me, “I think that’s okay. Frankly, who [cares] about the letters? They should be focusing on fixing the problems and not worrying about who gets a letter.” Yet, for those who lose a child to suicide, any consolation – no matter how small – can go a long way.
*Name & details changed
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