A few weeks ago, various news outlets reported the story of Spc. Chancellor Keesling, an American soldier in Iraq who committed suicide. While incidents of suicide among soldiers who are currently active and those returned home is certainly newsworthy, the focus of this particular story was quite different. Although Mr. Keesling received a proper military burial, his family did not receive the standard condolence letter sent by the president, as is customary for fallen soldiers.
This didn’t sit well with the family. Was he not a hero too? Did he not serve his country honorably? Mr. Keesling’s family then found out the reality: there would be no condolence letter — it was a matter of policy. Incensed, Mr. Keesling’s father, Gregg, wrote letters to President Obama and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. asking them to reconsider the policy. You can read the letter here.
An Op-Ed piece in Friday’s New York Times also addresses the issue, which looks at the notion that recognition of soldier suicide valorizes or venerates death.
I have mixed feelings on this issue. I can certainly see how a grieving family would want to have their son or daughter’s military service recognized and respected and how a letter from the president would help ease that pain just a bit. However, I also don’t think killing oneself is the same as dying in combat, getting killed by friendly fire or any other way while serving. It is a different kind of death — or so we are to believe — one that does not jibe with the heroic propaganda and selfless ideology of the military.
This does not mean that Mr. Keesling did not serve his country honorably or that he doesn’t deserve recognition somehow. But ultimately, it is Mr. Keesling’s family that will live with the pain of his death for the rest of their lives, and no letter is going to change that. For President Obama and other military officials, a condolence letter is just part and parcel of the war machine, or S.O.P (standard operating procedure) in military terms. Although the Administration is looking into their current policies surrounding condolence letters, suicide, for now, is not considered “honorable.”
I believe that focusing on the root causes of depression and supporting mental health efforts for military personnel is the best strategy — and will hopefully help lessen the number of suicides in the first place — and the pain for those left behind.