This tragedy keeps on giving


Lincoln started it.

The soldier might have been shot to death by the enemy.

He might have died when a bridge he was building trapped him underwater.

Or, the soldier might killed himself.

It didn’t matter.  The cause of death didn’t matter.  Under Lincoln’s signature, the soldier’s family got a letter of condolence.  It expressed the president’s sorrow at the family’s loss.  And gratitude for the person’s service.

Presidents after Lincoln followed his practice.  Until President Clinton.  Somehow, the people at the Pentagon then decided the families whose service member committed suicide didn’t hear from the Commander-In-Chief or any expression of sorrow or thanks.

Just recently, one family spoke up.  Their son fighting in Iraq took his own life.  He’d been deployed several times and had seen lots of action.  In his last call home, he tried to explain how distressed he had been.  But his dad, not fully comprehending the son was on the edge, admonished the boy to “be a man.”   Hours after that phone call the son shot himself to death in the latrine.

The front-page story appeared in the Thanksgiving Day edition of The New York Times.

I suppose publication of treating a service suicide as not a death to be honored will prompt the Pentagon to change policy.  From now on, I expect to see  a letter of presidential condolence will be sent to families whose service member killed him or herself.

It’s yet another reason we need news reporters, to see that outrages such as this get publicly aired and ended.  Yet the revelation comes at an awkward time for the  the military.  Recently, it’s been trying to de-stigmatize mental illness.

Treating suicide as an exception by the military reflects public attitudes.  A former student of my daughter’s recently killed himself.   Another teacher protested, “How selfish!”

It’s cruel to judge.  Moreover, it’s likely to be wrong about the person’s reasons for taking his or her own life.    For those nearly 140  soldiers who committed suicide last year, and almost that many in 2009, civilians can only guess at the horrors these young people have seen in battle.

What I’m reasonably sure of is that the person has become terribly distressed and sees no other way out of the psychic pain.  To be sure, suicide is a tragedy.   But it is not a dishonor.   And if it’s a soldier,  a presidential letter of condolence to the family seems totally in order.

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