White House changes condolences policy

The American Legion has long believed that the next of kin of any U.S. servicemember who dies while serving on active duty is deserving of a condolence letter from the president of the United States. But for decades White House policy has been those letters only went to the families of servicemembers who died either in combat or as a result of noncombat incidents in a war zone.

That practice changed July 5, when President Barack Obama altered the policy he inherited from previous administrations on condolences for servicemembers who die on active duty. Under the new policy, letters now will be sent to the next of kin of any servicemembers - including those who commit suicide - who are killed while on active duty serving in Operation New Dawn, Operation Enduring Freedom and other combat operations.

"Whether it's a non-combat death or a suicide, then is not the time to examine the cause of death," said Jimmie Foster, national commander of The American Legion. "There is little or no chance that these men and women would have died under similar circumstances had they not put themselves in service to their country. No matter where the servicemember dies or the cause of death, we feel that a condolence letter from the president of the United States - the commander-in-chief of our armed forces - is the very least our country can do for these families to show its gratitude. We are pleased that our commander-in-chief, President Obama, listened to the concerns of The American Legion, other VSOs and individuals and changed this long-flawed policy."

In 2010, Obama ordered a review of the policy; the new policy went into effect July 5.

"There is a stigma attached to suicides," Foster said. "But the fact is, post-traumatic stress is one of the signature wounds of the war on terror, and one of the symptoms of PTS is suicidal thoughts. Those deaths shouldn't be marginalized in any way, and we are pleased those families will now receive the acknowledgement of their sacrifice that they deserve."