WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Announcing a change of protocol, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he would write condolence letters to families of military personnel who take their own lives in combat zones.
Obama said he had reversed a long-standing policy of not honoring troops who commit suicide in the same way as those who are killed in active duty, in recognition of the mental health strains linked to fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"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," he said in a statement.
"Our men and women in uniform have borne the incredible burden of our wars, and 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 president has sought to raise attention to what he called on Wednesday "the unseen wounds of war," including brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety that some soldiers experience in conflict and when they get home.
General Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, praised the decision to change the condolence letter policy as "a monumental step" to eliminate the stigma associated with such trauma and behavioral problems, as well as the tragedy of suicide.
According to a report released last year, 1,100 servicemen and women committed suicide from 2004 to 2009 -- one suicide every day and a half -- including veterans who returned home.
Last month, the Army said it had identified 21 potential suicides among active duty soldiers in May. It confirmed two cases of suicide in April and was investigating another 14 potential cases.
(Reporting by Laura MacInnis and Phil Stewart; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)