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White House alters policy on letters of condolence

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President Obama announced Wednesday he will begin sending condolence letters to next-of-kin of service members who commit suicide in a combat zone, reversing a long-standing policy.

"This issue is emotional, painful and complicated," Mr. Obama said in a statement. "But these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn't die because they were weak."

A group of senators, 10 Democrats and Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, wrote a letter to the president in May asking him to change the "insensitive" policy. The group is led by Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and Mr. Burr, co-chairs of the Senate Military Family Caucus.

The lawmakers said 10 years of continuous combat operations had led to an "epidemic" of suicides among the U.S. military. But a report released by the Pentagon last summer said that 79 percent of the troops who committed suicide had had only one deployment or had not deployed at all.

Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, commended the president's decision in a posting on the White House blog.

"The greatest regret of my military career was as commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2004-05," Gen. Chiarelli wrote. "I lost 169 soldiers during that yearlong deployment. However, the monument we erected at Fort Hood, Texas, in memoriam lists 168 names. I approved the request of others not to include the name of the one soldier who committed suicide. I deeply regret my decision."

He said "any attempt to characterize these individuals as somehow weaker than others is simply misguided," and noted the Army is working with the National Institute of Mental Health to reduce the incidence of suicides in the military.

The White House had been reviewing the condolence-letter policy since 2009, and some military families had pushed for the change.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national group that offers support for families of troops who kill themselves, applauded the administration's action.

"The White House policy change sends an important message of care and comfort to grieving families who are suffering following a suicide in a combat zone," the group said.

But TAPS said two-thirds of military suicides occur after troops leave the battlefield, and their families should receive letters, too.

"With only select families receiving presidential condolence letters, a line is drawn between the value of the life and service of someone who dies on foreign soil and someone who dies in the exact same manner, whether injury, illness or suicide, here at home," it said in a statement. "For families, that does not go unnoticed and is often hurtful."

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