Op-Ed: White House Suicide Policy Falls Short

The White House announced President Obama will begin sending condolence letters to the families of armed service men and women who kill themselves in combat zones. Forbes blogger Susannah Breslin argues the policy falls short, overlooking suicides committed by service members outside combat zones.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host: Last week, the White House reversed a longstanding policy and announced that President Obama will now send letters of condolence to the families of armed service men and women who commit suicide in combat zones. Some military families lobbied for that change. A group of senators also recently asked the president to change the policy. Still, Forbes blogger Susannah Breslin argues the president's moves fall short and leaves many out. If you've served in the military, tell us.

Does the new policy on condolence letters for suicide go far enough? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website and find a link to the opinion piece in Forbes. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Susannah Breslin joins us now from member station WDEZ in Chicago. And nice to have you with us today.

SUSANNAH BRESLIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you point out that a lot of men and women who are - suffer mental problems in combat zones bring those problems home with them, and then later unfortunately take their lives.

BRESLIN: Right. And I do want to underscore that I do think the gesture that Obama made by reversing this policy is a good one. It's a start in the right direction. And in his statement he also recognized how there are problems related to being in combat that are unseen. It isn't simply a matter of losing a leg in case of service men and women who take their own lives in a combat zone, or once they returned home they may suffer from a traumatic brain injury, they may have experienced suicidal ideation.

They may have post-traumatic stress disorder. And while we can't necessarily see those problems, they are real and should be recognized, and I think that's what Obama is getting at, because there is a pervasive problem within the military of perceiving those men and women who develop PTSD or who take their own lives as somehow weak or a failure.

CONAN: As a character flaw somehow.

BRESLIN: Exactly. And the fault that I found is that Obama's decision limits the condolence letters to the families of those who commit suicide, only to those who take their own lives in a combat zone. And what it doesn't recognize is the myriad of problems that these men and women are facing when they return home after multiple deployments in a relatively short period of time. Often PTSD develops after a delay. And so to kind of create this distinction of, OK, we'll recognize it but only if it happens in Iraq or only if it happens in Afghanistan or another area that supports those combat missions, isn't enough.

CONAN: Isn't enough. If someone is injured in Iraq or Afghanistan by shrapnel or bullet fire and comes home and dies from their wounds at another location even many years later, does their family get a letter of condolence?

BRESLIN: You know, I am not a military expert. You'd have - I'm sure one of the callers can weigh in on that, but it's - what he's really talking about is the letters to the ones who specifically took their lives in a combat zone.

CONAN: You've experienced PTSD firsthand? You know something about it?

BRESLIN: I have.

CONAN: In what context?

BRESLIN: In 2005, I was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina came through and for - I actually didn't develop significant PTSD symptoms until early 2006, and I had relatively severe symptoms for about two years after that.

CONAN: And give us an idea of how that makes you feel.

BRESLIN: How does it feel to have PTSD?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BRESLIN: It is very difficult to describe and that's part of why I wrote the piece that I did and I'm interested in it. And I'm now interviewing combat veterans about their combat experiences, and some of them have developed PTSD. It is one way of - I was thinking about describing it earlier - is that it's as if someone has thrown a black blanket over your heard. You really - you become emotionally dead. You have problems with hyper-vigilance and can become paranoid, which is why seeking treatment can be a big challenge for those who experience it. Thoughts of suicide are not uncommon.

It's one way, when I had it, to describe it was that it was like looking through life through a smoked glass, and you feel very disconnected and far away. That's why people who develop PTSD often turn to substance abuse as a way to disconnect from the disorder itself.

CONAN: I know you're currently working on a project that presents stories of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. It's called the War Project. So I assume you've been talking to a lot of people who have had PTSD.

BRESLIN: It's a relatively new project, but one - I'm focusing on veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. And one thing that's interesting is you can have two guys in very similar experiences, one develops PTSD and one doesn't. And I - you know, I'm not a scientist. I certainly don't know why one develops it and another doesn't, why one soldier ends up taking his life and another comes home and re-adjusts just fine. It seems to be a combination of factors, I think, that has part to do with how your brain is wired. I sense from some of those stories that I've heard that parental influence was factor.

When you're talking about a combination of being at war and an abundance of traumatic brain injuries, things get complicated for some people when they deploy.

CONAN: We're talking with Susannah Breslin, a blogger for Forbes.com and creator the War Project. She wrote in a recent piece that the change in policy by the White House to send letters of condolence to people, men and women, in armed forces who commit suicide in theater does not go far enough, that the same kinds of letters ought to be sent to families of those who commit suicide after they come home as well. 800-989-8255. David's on the line with us from New Boston in Michigan.

DAVID: How are you doing? Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: I'm a combat veteran, United States Marine. I served five years in the infantry and have two tours overseas. I guess I'm just calling to disagree with your caller a little bit as far as the letters of condolences go. I am familiar with individuals who have taken their lives overseas and things like that. And what I would ask that you remember is that these letters of condolences are traditionally for people who lost their lives in service to their country due to enemy fire, fire from the enemy during fighting, not self-inflicted wounds.

You wouldn't give a Purple Heart to somebody who shot themselves in the foot, why would you give a letter of condolence to somebody who, in our culture keep that in mind, this a different culture in the military - in our culture took the coward's way out? Now, I know that's not a very popular view, I'm sure, to many people who have suffered this lost in their family, but like I said, I ask you to keep in mind, you're talking about a very different culture in the service.

CONAN: I understand the difference in culture. Does that extend to the families of these men who might very strongly believe that their sons or daughters died in service to their country from wounds suffered in combat, just not wounds that bled?

DAVID: I do understand that to a degree. Howsoever, I think that that would be a difficult thing to prove because the said named person is no longer there. He's obviously passed away. There are - I had a Marine myself who took his own life in Iraq because of constantly going on with his spouse back home. Now, the only reason we knew that is because he happened to be on a computer at the time with his wife and so forth and so on.

If somebody has personal problems going on back home, there are various reasons why people take their own lives, and it's not just in combat or because of PTSD. I myself have been diagnosed with it. And as your guest had say, people do handle it very differently. It can be in the same exact situation. They do handle it differently. I don't think that - I don't want to downplay it at all, the loss these families have endured, but I do think that, you know, giving letters of condolences to somebody who takes their own life's family is about the equivalent of giving somebody a Purple Heart who shoots himself in the foot.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DAVID: Yes, sir.

CONAN: And obviously, Susannah Breslin, there are a lot of people in the military who are going to agree with David.

BRESLIN: Absolutely. And several of them commented on my post on my Forbes blog. And I completely respect that the Marine speaks very clearly from the military culture, and I understand that. But that culture is also a problem within the military because with that attitude you don't want to seek out treatment. You don't want to admit you have PTSD. And you don't want to admit you're thinking about killing yourself. And those are the people who are more likely to continue to suffer from PTSD and to take their own lives.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BRESLIN: He also speaks from a position that is logically arguing that a soldier who takes his own life is - or a Marine or a seaman or an airman

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah.

BRESLIN: ...is - he is not - he's putting his fellow men in danger when he does that. He's not doing his job. So it is - it's not as if having - you know, calling into question Obama's decision is, you know, simply this comes from a liberal stand point of oh gosh, you know, it's all so terrible and let's give everybody a condolence letter and flowers. And that'll make it all OK. You know, I understand the military culture. It's - they don't want this happening. It's not good for war to have people killing themselves in a combat zone.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Glen(ph) on the line, Glen with us from Kalamazoo.

GLEN: Hello. How are you today?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

GLEN: The last caller there that made the reference to suicide, you know, being a coward's way out, I would (unintelligible) I understand this logic behind it, but,you know, I'm working on a graduate degree in counseling psychology where - you know, with emphasis on post-traumatic stress. And that - he doesn't obviously - he doesn't understand the disorder and doesn't understand what these guys are going through.

CONAN: And have you seen people in that situation and have you been in that situation?

GLEN: Yes, I have. I've, like I said, I'm a combat veteran from Vietnam. I'm a disabled combat veteran. And you know, and I just really, really - I mean, I know a lot of people and I've had contacts with a lot of people and done some counseling with people with post-traumatic stress and it's just that's simply not the case. If you're never been - if you've never had post-traumatic stress, really, it's hard to describe and it's hard to understand what it's all about about. Buts...

CONAN: Just to - in David's defense, the caller who was with us earlier, he said he also has PTSD and still believes what he believes. So he has...

GLEN: No, I understand that. I understand that, and it's not a way out for me, that's for sure. And I (technical difficulties) feel very strongly about that. But it's just - it's a lot more complicated than that. It really is.

CONAN: Well...

GLEN: And some of these guys are afraid to go to sleep because they know that they may wake up with - you know, in a pool of sweat, you know, and terrified. Unless you've have post-traumatic stress, it's really hard to understand what it's all about.

CONAN: Glen, thank you very much for the call.

GLEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And Susannah Breslin, thank you for your time today.

BRESLIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Susannah Breslin, a blogger for Forbes.com, a freelance journalist. Her post "The Problem with Obama's Combat Zone Suicide Condolence Letters" ran July 6. There's a link to it on our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: