Monday, Nov. 30, 2009 | 2:04 a.m.
The family of a soldier who committed suicide in June while on his second deployment to Iraq is raising an issue that deserves the attention of both the White House and the Pentagon. The soldier, Spec. Chancellor “Chance” Keesling from Indianapolis, was 25 years old when he died.
His story, and the story of his family’s desire for one last honor in his memory, was told last week by both the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The attention is warranted, as the emotionally moving request by Chance’s family, if granted, would be a comfort to all who have lost to suicide a family member serving honorably in a war zone.
Chancellor Keesling received full honors at his funeral, including a letter of praise from the Army, a folded U.S. flag and a 21-gun salute. But his family members never received the final honor they had assumed would be arriving from President Barack Obama — a letter of condolence.
This is because the White House observes an unwritten policy that long predates the Obama administration — members of the military who commit suicide are not eligible for a letter from the president. This is a harsh rule, as any war can push even the most hardened soldier, Marine, sailor or airman into extreme anxiety. Add any personal issues — Keesling’s marriage crumbled during his first deployment and his relationship with his girlfriend was slipping during his second — and the possibility arises that some will turn to suicide.
This month the Army announced that 140 soliders had committed suicide this year, equaling the record number of Army suicides recorded for 2008. We are reminded of what then-Army Secretary Pete Geren said last year: “Army leaders are fully aware that repeated deployments have led to increased distress and anxiety for both soldiers and their families.”
The Army now tells soldiers that mental illness is not a condition of which they should be ashamed, and that seeking help will not stigmatize them. But that might be hard for them to believe when the families of their fellow soldiers who committed suicide do not receive letters of condolence from the president.
The president should send condolence letters to all honorably serving members of the military who die during their deployments, no matter the cause of their deaths.