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Obama Reverses Policy Denying Condolence Letters to Families of U.S. Soldiers Who Commit Suicide

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The Obama administration has reversed a longstanding U.S. policy to deny presidential condolence letters to families of soldiers who have committed suicide, saying it hopes to reduce the stigma associated with the mental health costs of war. Service member suicides have increased as some troops serve repeated tours of duty and suffer post-traumatic stress. The new condolence letter policy went into effect this month but will not apply retroactively. Mental health and troop advocacy groups welcomed the change, but said those who die outside war zones also should be recognized, and that more should be done to prevent suicide among service members. We speak to Gregg and Jannett Keesling, parents of Chancellor Keesling, a U.S. soldier who took his own life during his second tour of duty in Iraq, and Kevin Lucey, whose son, Jeff Lucey, took his own life after returning home from military duty in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Obama administration has reversed a longstanding U.S. policy to deny presidential condolence letters to families of soldiers who have committed suicide. The move came after a group of senators, 10 Democrats and one Republican, asked President Obama to change what they call the “insensitive” policy of neglecting families of military suicide victims. The President said he agreed to make the change in hopes of removing the stigma associated with the mental health costs of war. In a written statement, Obama said, quote, “This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn’t get the help they needed must change.”

Roughly a fifth of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan experience anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Service member suicides have increased as some troops serve repeated tours of duty and suffer post-traumatic stress. For the second year in a row, the U.S. military has lost more troops to suicide than it has to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: The new presidential condolence letter policy went into effect this month. It will not retroactively apply to families who lost their loved ones before the change. Mental health and troop advocacy groups welcome the change, but they note the new policy will apply only to troops who commit suicide in officially designated combat zones, namely in Afghanistan and Iraq. They say those who die outside combat zones should also be recognized and that more should be done to prevent suicide among service members.

The presidential letter condolence policy had been under review by the White House since 2009. Many military families had pushed for the change. Democracy Now! broke the story in 2009, when we interviewed the parents of Chancellor Keesling, a U.S. soldier who took his own life during his second tour of duty in Iraq. Chance’s parents, Gregg and Jannett Keesling, are joining us again today from Indianapolis, Indiana, from the PBS station WFYI.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I, In writing to Gregg, offered my bittersweet congratulations on this victory that you have worked so hard over the last few years to achieve, this change of the presidential condolence letter policy. Jannett, what are your feelings today?

JANNETT KEESLING: Oh, it’s really bittersweet for us. It’s been an exhausted—exhausting night and day, just so much happening. But I really am appreciative for the President’s change in this policy, although I hope and pray that no family will receive a letter anytime soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Gregg, can you tell us about what happened to Chance? Tell us your son’s story.

GREGG KEESLING: Well, Chance, he was—signed up for the military in 2003, had joined the Army. He signed up for four years as an enlisted soldier, and that also includes four years as a reserve soldier. And so, he was trained for the rebuilding of Iraq, and he was a combat engineer and trained. He operated big equipment, and he loved to run the big equipment. And so, but finally, he was retrained as a tactical gunner sitting on top of a Humvee, and—because there was really very little rebuilding going on. And he got deployed in ’06, you know, did a good job, was over there.

Toward the end of his first deployment, his marriage broke up, and it was a very emotional time for him. And so, he—but he got through that. His battle buddies recognized he was in trouble and gave us two more years with our son. And so, he left—he completed his enlistment, left the enlisted army, but then became a reserve. And in April of ’09, he got called up as a reservist soldier and died shortly thereafter.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And he shared with you his feelings about returning back to Iraq. And could you talk about that, as well?

GREGG KEESLING: Yeah, we had a very detailed conversation. He and I were—drove—were driving. And I just said, “Chance, you don’t have to go. You’ve got other options.” And he said, “Dad, this is my duty. I’ve made a commitment to this. I’ll be fine. I can handle this.” And so we thought he was going to be OK when he went on this deployment.

What we subsequently found out is that the American Portability Act prevents any battlefield trauma from your enlisted time being transferred to your reserve period of service. So, his commanders, none of his battle bodies, nobody knew. And as we learned from General Casey in a letter in early—or late '09, that it was Chance's responsibility to tell his new unit. And we thought that’s a crazy responsibility to put on a young soldier. But he—he did his duty. He went over—

AMY GOODMAN: Gregg, just a question. When he first came back from Iraq and knew he needed a lot of help, mental health counseling—his life, he was feeling, was falling apart—the Army offered him a bonus of something like $27,000, and he said, no, he just needed to stay home and heal?

GREGG KEESLING: Yeah, yeah, they—yeah, they wanted—at first they wanted him to reenlist, because they needed soldiers. So they offered, I think, $17,000 to reenlist. He turned that down. And then when he became a reservist, they were needing soldiers to go back earlier than the two years. He was supposed to be given two years after leaving the enlisted army before he could be redeployed as a reservist. And so, they offered him $27,000 to go back earlier, and he turned that down, as well. And he did get healthy in 2008. It was a great year. He got a job, a new girlfriend, and things seemed on the upbeat. And we were hopeful the war would be ending before he got redeployed.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, as you have heard, not only the tragedy with your son, but so many other soldiers, the suicide rates in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in general, the suicide rates among veterans—there was a report from the Veterans Department in 2010 that 30 suicides are attempted each day by Army veterans, and 18 of them are successful. As many as 18 American veterans every day are committing suicide. Your sense of the government, in this decision by President Obama, recognizing that these are not acts of weakness by folks, but actually deep problems that the military needs to deal with and has to recognize the service of these men and women?

GREGG KEESLING: Yeah, we’ve been at war for 10 years in this country, and the wounds are very, very deep. And I think changing the presidential condolence policy, it’s become such a big story in the country, because it’s a small relief valve of the stress that soldiers and their families are feeling. And I think President Obama has done the right thing. I think it’s going to send a powerful message throughout all of the military ranks to take the suicide training more seriously, to begin to destigmatize seeking help, to understand that PTSD is the signature wounds of these wars, and to better understand how the brain works, and that we can understand PTSD. And I think, finally, I think the policy change says to every single soldier in the military, look out for your battle buddy.

AMY GOODMAN: Jannett, when you and Gregg went to Dover to receive the body of Chancellor, your son, as it was sent home from Iraq, a military officer came up to you to tell you that you should do something about this, talked to you about his alarm. Can you explain what happened there on the tarmac?

JANNETT KEESLING: You know, everything happened so quickly, and I think I was just such in a state of shock. And I think, for me, these past two years has been an education. A lot of what was happening in the military, we weren’t even aware of it. And even though my son, you know, did call home a couple of times and say we’ve lost somebody recently, I had no idea it was of such magnitude. I had no idea that so many of these young people were attempting to take their lives or taking their lives on a daily basis. So, this is why we have really, even though it’s our very personal story and it’s extremely painful, we knew it was the right thing to do. We needed to bring this in the open, even though we have endured some criticism. We have also endured so much wonderful support from the citizens of the United States, and we’re so ever grateful.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And joining us also—

GREGG KEESLING: Amy, we’ve got a—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Go ahead. Yes?

GREGG KEESLING: I was going to say real quick, we got one letter from Brianna Cox, who’s a ninth grader at Hudson High School in Massachusetts, and she sent her own condolence letter to us. This is before she knew the President changed the policy. But I brought that here today, and it really—it really meant a lot to get this very nice letter. And she goes, “I know this cannot replace a presidential condolence, but please accept my family’s condolence.” So, Brianna Cox—so that’s just one example of the hundreds of outreach that has occurred from people all across this country, and it’s really been wonderful.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to be joined, in addition to the Keeslings, by the father of another young soldier who took his own life, but took his own life here in the United States after returning from Iraq. We’ll be joined by Kevin Lucey. We’re with the Keeslings, Gregg and Jannett Keesling, in Indianapolis, as well. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: With us at PBS station WFYI in Indianapolis, Gregg and Jannett Keesling. They lost Chance Keesling several years ago after he committed suicide on his second tour of Iraq, trying not to return, to get the mental help he needed—mental health help he needed back in the United States.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And joining us also is Kevin Lucey, the [father] of former Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey, who hanged himself after returning home from Iraq.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

KEVIN LUCEY: Thank you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Kevin Lucey, tell us first about your son, what happened to him when he returned from Iraq.

KEVIN LUCEY: Well, Jeffrey returned from—Jeffrey returned from Iraq back in July of ’03. He participated in the invasion. What happened was that, for the first couple of months, everything seemed to be fine—a little bit of adjustment, and there was a little bit of drinking. But then, on Christmas Eve, he took off his dog tags, and he tossed them at his younger sister, crying, saying he was nothing more than a murderer.

We tried to react that we encouraged him to go and get help, and he was afraid to, due to the fact of stigma. He had applied to become a Massachusetts state police officer. And he said that if he sought help, that would go onto his jacket, and they would know that he was having possible issues.

But then he readjusted again. And so, for another few months, everything went well, until his 23rd birthday. On March 18th, he started swirling out of control. Symptoms just exploded. We tried to beg him to go and get help again. And then, finally, he did reach out to the V.A., after we found out that the V.A. would not report to the military any of the medical interventions he was seeking.

We brought him to the V.A. on Memorial Day weekend 2004. They kept him for three days. Even after he told them of three ways he had planned to kill himself—he also divulged to them that he had bought a hose, but we never knew—they discharged him, and he seemed to be OK for a day. But then on June 1st, he got involved in a single car accident, totaled our family car. And then on June 5th, the day he was graduating from Holyoke Community College, he couldn’t graduate. He did go there, and he did see his sister, Debbie, graduate, but he started drinking heavily again.

We brought him back to the V.A., and the V.A. didn’t even bother calling a doctor to assess him. And—but Jeff wouldn’t go into the building, either. And so, he came back home. And then, on June 14th, he was sitting on the floor going through a PTSD book I had purchased, saying he had all the symptoms, and he cried. And for five days he was sober. And we tried to get him help, but the system wasn’t developed to respond to his needs.

So, what happened is that, that weekend, we went up to a place in Maine, and we—I came back home with Jeff because of a drinking episode. And then, what happened is then, on June 21st, in the evening, about 11:30, when I had come home originally that day, he was in a horrible rage. He was never angry at us. He was angry at the government. He was angry about the war. He was angry about so many different issues. And he started threatening suicide. So we called the veterans’ center. And what happened was, they did—the woman spoke to Jeff and spoke to I, calmed us both down. That night, he asked if he could sit in my lap, and we rocked for about 45 minutes, and then he went to his room. And the following day, on June 22nd, he was once again in my lap as I was cutting him down from the beams.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s where you found him in the basement. His dog tag—


AMY GOODMAN: —the dog tags of Iraqis he said he killed, in his room, and he hanging from the beam in the basement?

KEVIN LUCEY: Correct. He had built a shrine of family pictures, with his platoon picture being in the middle of the semicircle, and then he had family pictures around. And then he had left three letters.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask—this presidential condolence letter policy that’s been reversed will not apply in the future to people like Jeff, because he came home and committed suicide. It also is not retroactive, so neither you nor the Keeslings would be getting letters. But the vast majority of soldiers who commit suicide don’t do it in the combat zone; they do do it after they have come home. Can you comment on this, Kevin?

KEVIN LUCEY: Well, one of the things that we want people to understand is that the formal count of suicides that you hear, we believe, is a tremendously underestimated average, due to the fact that, as you said, Jeff’s suicide is among the uncounted, the unknown, the unacknowledged. And at this point, we brought it up to the public attention because we felt, just like the Keeslings, that this is a situation that needs to be addressed. And yet, over the years—now, our son died in 2004—but we’ve heard presidential study commissions being established almost every year.

How often do you have to study a suicide epidemic, and we don’t know what steps have been taken? We know some steps have been taken, but not enough. So, therefore, we will never know the true number of the suicides, just like the Vietnam veterans state that they don’t know the true number of their comrades that have committed suicide. But we’re afraid that it’s stripping, right now, the numbers of KIAs in the battlefield. And so, that’s of tremendous concern.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your sense that, given the fact that the military has to know, has to know the impact, the psychological impact, on these returning soldiers, because they’re dealing with them on a regular basis, the V.A. is, the inability of the government and the military to come up with rapid intervention, when soldiers need it, not after the fact, as happened here with your son?

KEVIN LUCEY: Correct. What baffled us about the way Jeff was treated is that here you have a soldier suffering from hidden wounds, struggling to try to take his breath, his next breath, and they were demanding the DD214, they were demanding that he travel. It’s approximately 30 to 40 miles away from our home. And so, therefore, there’s a number of hurdles, when you have a soldier suffering from hidden wounds, where they are not going to have that high degree of motivation to be able to go to them themselves.

In this nation, one of the things that we could never understand—and we have made our feelings known publicly, to the government, to the Congress. We’ve made our feelings known to VA administration. They’ve got to develop an outreach. This nation needs to embrace every single man and woman who returns from battlefield. They need to be able to offer them the services without stigma, without any type of penalty or discrimination. And until they do, the suicides will continue. Until this country becomes so creative with all its wealth, richness and intelligence, until they can garner all those energies, this trend will still continue.

AMY GOODMAN: Gregg, do you and—rather, let me ask Kevin. Do you feel you should be getting, you and your wife Joyce, should be getting a presidential condolence letter on the loss of your son?

KEVIN LUCEY: To be honest with you, it’s too late now. But the thing that we fought for was for families who would be following us. And so, it was very bittersweet to hear that the President has changed the policy, but we do appreciate, and we think that it is a major step. It’s a major step for the many parties that have been involved in this—the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Military Families Speak Out. The American Legion has congratulated the President. So at this point, the letter to us is not important. What we would rather see, to honor all the fallen by hidden wounds at this point, is for this government to commit itself to develop the best resources, so that he won’t have to write many other of those letters.

AMY GOODMAN: Gregg and Jannett, I wanted to get your final comments in Indianapolis. And Gregg, you also, you and Jannett, will not be receiving a condolence letter from the President, because it’s not retroactive. But you have written a play about your different responses to grieving and loss. Can you end by talking about that?

GREGG KEESLING: Yeah, Paul Amandes, from the Columbia College of Chicago, wrote the play as a response to the news stories. In fact, when you broke the story, Amy, he saw the story. So he wrote the play from seeing the Democracy Now! program.

We hope it’s impactful for people who are really trying to struggle with understanding mental health and dealing with the loss of a loved one. It’s a very complicated issue. We think the President has done the right thing in changing this policy. We think he has listened to lots of people. I mean, Senator Boxer was one who called on the change, but also there’s been the House of Representatives. Dan Burton and André Carson, two congressmen here in Indiana, from two sides of the political spectrum, came together very strongly. And Congressman Burton said to me that, you know, our soldiers mental health is more important than any partisan issue. And we’re just thankful that so many people have reached out and worked so hard to get this policy changed. And now, moving forward, we think it’s going to—it’s going to be a hard go, but we think it’s—the direction it’s moving is the right way.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for being with us, Gregg and Jannett Keesling from Indianapolis, and thanks so much—


JANNETT KEESLING: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: —to Kevin Lucey, joining us from Chicopee, Massachusetts. Again, our condolences on the losses of—you have suffered for Jeff Lucey, as well for Chancellor Keesling.

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