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White House lifts ban on military suicide condolences

By Dan Lothian, White House Correspondent
Army Spc. Chancellor Keesling, seen here with his father Gregg Keesling, committed suicide in Iraq in 2009.
Army Spc. Chancellor Keesling, seen here with his father Gregg Keesling, committed suicide in Iraq in 2009.
  • Decision will help end "stigma" of wars' mental health toll, says senator
  • Senators, family of a deceased soldier had asked president to reverse the policy
  • Army report showed a steady rise in 2004-2009 Army and Marine suicide rates

Washington (CNN) -- The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it will begin sending condolence letters to the next-of-kin of service members who commit suicide, said a White House statement.

"This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated," President Barack Obama said in the statement. "But these Americans served our nation bravely ... we need to do everything in our power to honor their service, and to help them stay strong for themselves, for their families and for our nation."

The move comes nearly six weeks after a group of senators -- 10 Democrats and one Republican -- asked President Barack Obama to change what they called an "insensitive" policy that dates back several administrations.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer led the bipartisan group and was pleased with the administration's policy change.

"This will ... do a great deal to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health treatment that prevents so many from seeking the care they need," she said in a statement Wednesday.

2009: No letter for suicide families
2010: Soldiers under stress
Army: Service equals lifetime of stress

The lack of condolence letters in instances of suicide has been the subject of protest by some military families.

"It's bittersweet," said Gregg Keesling, father to Army Spc. Chancellor Keesling, who killed himself while serving in Iraq. "It does not bring our son back, but I think it does send a powerful message that mental health in our military can be addressed."

CNN first reported in 2009 about the family of Army Spc. Keesling.

The family set up a wall to pay tribute to Keesling in their Indiana home. Along with his uniform and the flag from his burial service, a space was left for the expected condolence letter from the commander in chief.

Upset when they learned a suicide did not merit a letter from the president, Gregg Keesling wrote to the president and the Army chief of staff requesting the policy be changed. He argued that his son's suicide was a result of what he was exposed to during war and that it deserved to be considered caused by battle.

"They didn't die because they were weak," said the president's statement. "And the fact that they didn't get the help they needed must change."

According to an Army report last year, annual suicide rates in the Marine Corps and the Army -- the two branches most involved in combat operations in Iraq and Afganistan -- increased steadily between 2004 and 2009, to more than 20 per 100,000 people. During that time the rate for those two branches surpassed the age-adjusted, national civilian average, whereas suicide rates for the Air Force and Navy stayed below the national average.

In 2001, the suicide rate among Marines, like the Air Force and Navy, was about half the civilian rate, and the Army's, while higher than the other three branches, was still below the civilian rate, according to the Army report.

CNN's Adam Levine contributed to this report.