Each and every member of the armed services who loses their life is mourned and grieved over and missed beyond words. But when their death is in battle or at the hands of enemy forces, there are at least words of condolence from the president, for whatever comfort that carries the bereaved loved ones.
What about the ones who fall by their own hand? This is a very tough one…
It is a long-standing tradition that presidents send letters of condolence to the families of troops killed at war, whether by enemy fire, accident or illness. But since the Clinton administration at least, one group has not received those hand-signed notes: families of troops who committed suicide, even those who killed themselves while deployed to a war front.
It’s a terribly sensitive and difficult issue for everyone.
That policy, government officials have said, is based on concerns among senior military leaders that presidential letters of condolence might appear to condone or even encourage suicide.
They have had to wrestle with this, had to make some decision to guide protocol.
It turns out, though, that on at least one occasion a president has made an exception to the no-letter protocol.
The case of Pfc. Scheuerman is recalled here, a poignant story and one that provokes a renewed look at policy and reality.
This story has been sitting in my lineup lately, one that I knew needed attention but…what to say? Which is exactly what the White House is contemplating.
In my case, I first wanted to know the thoughts of a good friend, a former Marine with a lot of experience and worldly wisdom, who I both trust, admire and appreciate. Knowing his thoughts on service and honor and nobility and valor and justice as I do, knowing what I could usually count on him to add to a conversation about war and military and government, I had…no idea what he would say about this.
Here’s what he said:
“I have to tell you. I have really mixed emotions about this. I understand military commanders not wanting to seem like they condone or encourage suicides by sending an official letter of condolence. I also understand that most people would think that suicide is “the cowards way out”. And to be honest, that is my first reaction as well.
“On the other hand, I know full well of the stress of combat. And repeated deployments only add to the frustration, depression, and feelings of guilt amongst combat soldiers and Marines. You may be wondering why I included “guilt” amongst the symptoms. Believe me…there’s plenty of it to go around. There’s guilt at having left your family and loved ones in a lurch. There’s guilt about taking the life of another human being…And there’s guilt simply for having the feelings that your having. Questioning one’s self in any combat situation can only lead to bad things happening. For you and your fellow soldiers and Marines. Having been deployed more times than I care to think about, I know full well what can transpire in the mind of a combat veteran. The mind is a funny thing. It’s amazing the things you think about when in a combat situation.
“I guess the best answer that I can give you is to leave it up to each individual president. I’d also say that a quick review of the soldier or Marine’s service record book would be in order as well before sending out any letter of condolence. I’d have to see if he (or she) was a good service member or was this someone who was constantly in trouble. Then again, I guess you could say that the person was in trouble because of the mental condition.
“It’s really kind of a no win situation. I know the “Christian thing to do” would be to send a letter. But, after all I have said here, deep down in my gut, (and I could be very, very wrong about this), I think that a letter of condolence is inappropriate. For me, it elevates the service member’s death to the same status as that of someone who died in actual combat. For me, there’s a big difference. I guess one of the other “perks” would be the flag draped coffin. Suicides don’t get that either. Should they be honored in such a way? Should they be honored the same as if they had died in combat?…
“They should be honored for their service, but in a much different, low key way. What that way is, I have no idea.”
With all due respect to everyone involved……and frankly, we’re all involved…this is a matter of the delicate human spirit and mind and soul, and yet that of a nation and armed forces as well. It gives me an even deeper appreciation than I already had for military chaplains (if it’s possible to take my longstanding appreciation even further) and respect for the president’s decision in counsel with his military advisors.
Pray for peace. And for those who battle to attain it.