Acknowledging the mental strains wrought by America's decade at war, the Pentagon and White House said Wednesday they will now begin sending condolence letters to families of troops who commit suicide in a combat zone.
The policy shift brings a bit of consistency to the long-standing practice of top U.S. leaders recognizing the service of those who died while fighting for their country. Until now, many of the military service chiefs and secretaries wrote to families of those who committed suicide while in combat. But in most cases, the president and secretary of defense did not.
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.
President Barack Obama said the decision was made after an exhaustive review of the previous policy, and was not taken lightly.
"This issue is emotional, painful and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn't die because they were weak," Obama said in a written statement. "And the fact that they didn't get the help they needed must change."
The complex and wrenching emotions of the issue are evident on a war memorial at Fort Hood, Texas. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, said Wednesday that the greatest regret of his military career was his decision to leave one name off that monument.
The soldier _ one of the 169 1st Cavalry Division troops Chiarelli lost during a yearlong deployment in Iraq _ had committed suicide. So just 168 names are listed on the memorial.
"The terrible things some have seen or experienced in combat have undoubtedly taken a toll on them," said Chiarelli, who has been leading the Army's effort to reduce suicides.
Chiarelli said that by directing that condolence letters be sent to families of those who committed suicide, Obama is taking steps to remove the stigma associated with mental health problems _ the so-called invisible wounds of war.
The letter policy had been under review by the White House since 2009 and some military families had pushed for the change. Service member suicides have increased as the U.S. has fought two overseas wars and some troops serve repeated tours of duty and suffered post-traumatic stress and other problems.
According to totals released Wednesday by the Pentagon, nearly 300 active duty service members committed suicide last year.
Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said it's "long past time for our nation to formally recognize the loss" of those troops.
"The families of troops who take their own lives in combat definitely deserve a condolence letter from the president," he said. "But the White House still needs to redouble its resolve to address the root of this suicide epidemic ... a huge, rapidly growing military and veteran suicide problem."
Rieckhoff said it's time for a "national call to action for more mental health professionals" and to mobilize resources to address the tragic suicide statistics.
The military has greatly increased training, mental health screening and numerous initiatives to stem suicides and encourage professional counseling for the anxiety, depression and other mental health problems estimated to affect roughly a fifth of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But officials also have long acknowledged that there is a shortage of mental health professionals in both the military and American civilian sectors.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a national group that provides free peer-based emotional support for families who lost troops to suicide, also applauded the new policy, but said it doesn't go far enough.
"The White House policy change sends an important message of care and comfort to grieving families who are suffering following a suicide in a combat zone," the group said. But it said two-thirds of military suicides occur after troops leave the battlefield and that those troops should be recognized as well.
The group also advocates presidential condolence letters to the next of kin for those who die in other noncombat situations outside the war zones, such as military training accidents stateside, sudden illness and so on.
"It is time for us, as a nation, to honor all those who die while serving honorably," TAPS said in a statement. "Every military family sacrifices when a loved one serves in the Armed Forces" and deaths among troops are "painful to their surviving family members, regardless of the circumstances or location of the death."
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.