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Obama to send condolences for combat-zone suicides


President Obama, saying men and women in the military who kill themselves in combat zones "didn't die because they were weak," reversed a long-standing policy Wednesday and said he would now send condolence letters to their families.
Obama acted after a yearlong campaign by veterans groups and politicians including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to recognize the toll that the stress of war takes on those who fight.
In doing so, the president repealed a policy born of religious and societal condemnation against suicide - particularly in the military, where strength is revered and weakness is seen as endangering one's fellow warriors.
"This issue is emotional, painful and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely," Obama said in a statement announcing his change. "They didn't die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn't get the help they needed must change."
The number of suicides among people serving in the armed forces has jumped more than 25 percent since 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The military averages one suicide every 36 hours, and last year alone 454 service members killed themselves in combat zones.
The 150,000 soldiers, sailors, Air Force personnel and Marines stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq are particularly vulnerable considering the high rate of redeployments and financial and family troubles associated with long periods spent away from home, counselors say.
Obama's decision "will honor the sacrifice of our nation's servicemen and -women and their families and do a great deal to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health treatment that prevents so many from seeking the care they need," Boxer said.
Kim Ruocco, whose husband hanged himself in California six years ago between deployments with the Marines, praised the move - but said it needs to go further.
"This policy change is very important for families of those who took their lives, because it sends a message that they mattered," said Ruocco, 48. "But we want the president to send letters to everyone who died in service of their country, because there are so many who didn't die in combat zones.
"Condolence letters let the families know that the country respects their sacrifice and sympathizes with their loss," Ruocco said. "That's all we're asking for."
Obama's change does not affect the government's policy of withholding condolence letters in the cases of those who kill themselves or die in accidents away from combat zones, or who die after they leave the service. The veterans department estimates 5,000 veterans annually commit suicide.
The VA in San Francisco has boosted its mental health staff by a third in the past two years as part of an effort to "amp up our suicide prevention efforts," said Judi Cheary, local spokeswoman for the department.
Ruocco's husband, 40-year-old Marine Maj. John Ruocco, was in the Corps for 15 years and had just come back from duty in Iraq when he killed himself in a hotel in Carlsbad (San Diego County). He flew 75 missions in Iraq, piloting AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and earning an Air Medal, but after coming home and getting ready at California's Camp Pendleton to go back, he was stricken with post-traumatic-stress-induced depression.
"We talked a lot about getting help, and the last time we talked he said he would," Ruocco said. "But he thought he was letting everyone down, displaying weakness."
Today, Ruocco lives in Massachusetts and is director of suicide outreach for the national Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors for military families. Her program has 2,000 members, 151 in California.
She gave a presentation on military suicides in San Francisco last year, and since then, "the need has only gotten bigger," she said.
"There is not a single state in the country that doesn't have people affected by suicide in the military," Ruocco said. "The more we talk about it, the more we can prevent it."
E-mail Kevin Fagan at [email protected].
This article appeared on page A - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle


Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/07/06/MNE01K7B0I.DTL#ixzz1UCrLxyF4