Presidential condolences and troop suicides

Apparently no one has told the White House that suicide is the final symptom of the disease of depression. Instead, they continue to stigmatize suicide as a poor moral choice. While the families of most soldiers and sailors who die at war receive official condolence notes from their Commander-in-Chief, there are no such notes for those who commit suicide.

The family of Pfc. Jason Scheuerman did not receive a note after he committed suicide. When his family inquired, they got a surprising answer. The New York Times reports, “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.”

Mr. Scheuerman wrote again saying the policy was misguided. The Times writes, “The White House did not respond to Mr. Scheuerman’s second letter. But in late 2005, the son of the Indianapolis Colts’ coach Tony Dungy committed suicide, and President George W. Bush sent him a letter of condolence.”

Mr. Scheuerman fired off a hand-written note to the White House asking why the son of a military family should be treated differently from the son of a professional football coach… A few weeks later, in March 2006, a letter from the White House arrived at the Scheuerman home in Sanford, N.C., near Fort Bragg, where Mr. Scheuerman worked at the time. “Laura and I are saddened by the loss of your son, Jason,” the letter, signed by President Bush, said. “We know this has been a difficult time for you, and we send our heartfelt sympathy.”

So at least one family finally received a note. I hope the Obama administration will fix this wrong-headed and cruel policy. No people suffering from depression are going to refrain from committing suicide, if their diseases progresses that far, because their family would not get a note. And I cannot imagine someone of sound mind would end his or her life so that a family could get mail from the White House.

Suicide is a tragedy of immense proportion. That tragedy should not be magnified by an outdated and misguided understanding of suicide. Writing these notes is a duty the President should not shirk. When someone has given the ultimate sacrifice for her or his country, the least our nation can do is acknowledge their death, express our sorrow, and thank them for their service.

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4 Responses

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    There is another problem. Just how do you write this letter?

    One could argue that a suicide death is no different than a death from pneumonia. One is mental; the other, physical. But, both are diseases.

    On the other hand, with suicide there is often the personal guilt of “I should have seen that coming.” I know. I have had several occasions to feel it in life. Once it involved a co-worker. Once, it involved a teenager in a church school class that I subbed as teacher for about a month (he died a day or two after my last Sunday subbing).

    When I was a classroom teacher, I once had a student lay out the details of wanting to commit suicide to me in great details (where to stand, what firearm, why). Fortunately nothing happened that time, but what if I had not been attentive to a student so that there was an opening to tell me something?

    While some type of acknowledgment is probably in order, the military and White House must find a way to do it following the principle of “first, do no harm.”

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Bob, for just the reasons you cite, it’s time to end the stigma. You write the note like any other condolence letter: “I am sorry for your loss. This must be a difficult time. Please know that we are praying for and thinking of you. The nation is profoundly grateful for your son’s/daughter’s service.”

  3. Bob Chapman says:

    Scott, I rationally always knew I was not the blame in the two suicide cases I mentioned. As the years have moved on, emotionally I have been able put it all behind me. It is that time close to death where you keep trying to blame yourself emotionally, even when rationally you know better.

    In the case of the person in the church school class I subbed, there was lots of guilt spreading around. That last Sunday when I subbed the class was also the Sunday of the Annual Meeting. There was discussion at the about something unrelated to anything in the class that lead me to bring up the high teenage suicide rate in South Dakota at the time. Most people, at the time, thought I was a fool. The next Sunday there were people who walked up to me and apologized for their response.

    None of that made me feel better. Rationally, I knew I had subbed the class for only 4 Sundays and I was the new “kid” in town (only arriving the previous August). Emotionally, I asked myself how I could know about a problem but not see it directly in front of me.

    [Here is the important point] I really didn’t feel better about the dead teenager when people acknowledged later that they should have listened to me. It only made me feel like I should have tried harder. [End of important point]

    I’m sure you have dealt with this more times than I have, given your vocation and employment. I’m not saying you are wrong. Only what it feels like, even when acknowledged.

  4. Bob Chapman says:

    Is the real stigma in the case of suicide people trying to avoid what they fear they did not do, not what the person actually did?