Families of military suicide victims call for widened condolence policy

washingtonpost.com | July 7, 2011

By Steve Vogel

Marine Sgt. Thomas R. Bagosy returned from a combat tour in Afghanistan in November 2009 suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Six months later, when officials at Camp Lejeune, N.C., tried to hospitalize him for treatment, Bagosy shot himself in the head during a standoff with military police.

The White House this week reversed its policy against extending official condolences to the families of military personnel who kill themselves, but the change applies only to those who commit suicide in officially designated combat zones.

In cases such as the one involving Bagosy, 25, who died in the United States, but after clear indication of mental disorder related to his war experiences, survivors still will be left without the comfort of a presidential letter.

“I’m angry at this — I really am,” Bagosy’s father, Robert, who also served in the Marine Corps, said Thursday. “Honestly, this is like a slap in the face. A condolence letter means a lot. It’s not going to bring my son back, but it matters.”

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The previous White House policy, inherited from past administrations, was to send presidential letters of condolence to families of service members who die in combat zones, with a “specific exemption for suicide,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “The key point here is we have put suicide on equal footing with other deaths.”

Presidential condolence letters are not routine when members of the military die away from war zones, no matter the cause. The policy review, officials said, was focused only on how to handle suicides that occurred in war zones.

The military long has struggled with how to handle suicide. While Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has supported changing the White House policy to extend condolences in cases of suicide, some in the military have been opposed, in part because of worries that it might lead to more suicides.

In a statement announcing the policy change on Wednesday, President Obama said: “This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly. This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak.”

About two-thirds of military suicides take place outside combat zones, and many of these suicides are related to PTSD or other combat-related stresses. Advocates for military families argue that the treatment of the next of kin should not depend on where the suicide occurred.

“It doesn’t matter how they died, it’s how they lived and how they served,” said Kim Ruocco, national director of suicide education and outreach for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization providing support for military families. “This is a common story; why does it matter where he died?”

Her husband, Maj. John Ruocco, a Marine Cobra helicopter pilot who flew 75 combat missions during a deployment to Iraq, killed himself in 2005, three months after returning home to Camp Pendleton, Calif. “He came back from war and was completely different,” she said.

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