Boxer: Military suicides merit presidential letters

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators including Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., wrote to President Obama today urging him to reverse a long-standing policy of not sending Presidential letters of condolence to families of American service members who commit suicide.

“We should honor the service of all the brave military men and women who sacrifice for our nation,” Boxer, who chairs the Senate Military Family Caucus, said in a news release. “Ending this long-standing policy will provide comfort to the families struggling with the loss of a loved one, while also reducing the stigma that prevents too many men and women in uniform from seeking the mental health care they need.”

The senators’ letter highlights a growing number of suicides among troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and points to a Department of Defense study which found that between 2005 and 2009, there was an average of one suicide every 36 hours in the military. Many administrations have had this policy of withholding condolence letters from families of military suicides, but opponents of the policy say it’s hurtful to such families and reinforces the stigma within the military surrounding mental health issues.

Besides Boxer, the letter was signed by Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Mark Udall, D-Colo.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Read the full letter, after the jump…

May 25, 2011

The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

We write to respectfully request that you take immediate steps to reverse the long-standing policy of withholding Presidential letters of condolence to the families of service members who die by suicide. While we appreciate that your Administration initiated a review of this policy in December 2009, we understand that this review has yet to be completed. It is long past time to overturn this hurtful policy.

As you well know, the incidence of suicide among our service men and women has reached epidemic levels due to the stresses of nearly ten years of continuous combat operations. According to the August 2010 Final Report of the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces, “In the 5 years from 2005 to 2009, more than 1,100 members of the Armed Forces took their own lives, an average of 1 suicide every 36 hours.”

In response, the Department of Defense has taken steps in recent years to better prevent suicides among service members—including working to eliminate the stigma within the military surrounding mental health injuries. This is so important because too often our service men and women do not seek the help they need because of concerns about how they will be perceived.

Unfortunately, perpetuating a policy that denies condolence letters to families of service members who die by suicide only serves to reinforce this stigma by overshadowing the contributions of an individual’s life with the unfortunate nature of his or her death. In addition, it further alienates families who are already struggling to cope with the death of a loved one. It is simply unacceptable for the United States to be sending the message to these families that somehow their loved ones’ sacrifices are less important.

Our nation’s Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines and their families deserve more. We sincerely hope you will do what is right and reverse this insensitive policy once and for all.

Thank you for attention to this critical matter and for your commitment to our military families.


Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

Richard Blumenthal
United States Senator

Richard Burr
United States Senator

Ben Cardin
United States Senator

Richard Durbin
United States Senator

Patrick Leahy
United States Senator

Mark Pryor
United States Senator

Jay Rockefeller
United States Senator

Jon Tester
United States Senator

Mark Udall
United States Senator

Ron Wyden
United States Senator

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.