WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he's decided to reverse a long-standing policy of not sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide while in a combat zone.
Mental health and troop advocacy groups welcomed the change as a step in the right direction, but said those who die outside the war zones also should be recognized and more should be done to combat suicides among service members.
The president said the decision was made after an exhaustive review of the previous policy, and was not taken lightly.
"This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn't die because they were weak," Obama said in a written statement. "And the fact that they didn't get the help they needed must change."
The policy had been under review by the White House since 2009 and some military families had pushed for the change. Service member suicides have increased as the U.S. has fought two overseas wars and some troops serve repeated tours of duty and suffered post-traumatic stress and other problems.
Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) said it's "long past time for our nation to formally recognize the loss" of those troops.
"The families of troops who take their own lives in combat definitely deserve a condolence letter from the president," he said. "But the White House still needs to redouble its resolve to address the root of this suicide epidemic ... a huge, rapidly growing military and veteran suicide problem."
He said it's time for a "national call to action for more mental health professionals" and to mobilize resources to address the tragic suicide statistics.
The military has greatly increased training, mental health screening and numerous initiatives to stem suicides and encourage professional counseling for the anxiety, depression and other mental health problems estimated to affect roughly a fifth of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But officials also have long acknowledged that there is a shortage of mental health professionals in both the military and American civilian sectors.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national group that provides free peer-based emotional support for families who lost troops to suicide, also applauded the new policy, but said it doesn't go far enough.
"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 it said two-thirds of military suicides occur after troops leave the battlefield and that those troops should be recognized as well.
The group also advocates presidential condolence letters to the next of kin for those who die in other non-combat situations outside the war zones, such as military training accidents stateside, sudden illness and so on.
"It is time for us, as a nation, to honor all those who die while serving honorably," TAPS said in a statement. "Every military family sacrifices when a loved one serves in the Armed Forces" and deaths among troops are "painful to their surviving family members, regardless of the circumstances or location of the death."