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Parents of Two Soldiers Who Took Their Own Lives Still Waiting for a Letter from Obama

A new US Army report finds the rate of suicide by soldiers in the Army has risen above the civilian rate for the first time since Vietnam.

Democracy Now! Co-host Juan Gonzalez: Soldier suicides are on the rise in America. In June alone, at least thirty-two active-duty and reserve officers took their own lives, the highest monthly figure since record keeping began. Meanwhile, a new US Army report has found that the rate of suicide by soldiers in the Army has risen above the civilian rate for the first time since the Vietnam War. In 2009, 160 soldiers committed suicide; another 146 died by other violent means, such as murder, drug abuse or reckless driving while drunk; another 1,700 attempted suicide. The report faulted commanders for ignoring rising mental health, drug and crime issues among soldiers. One-third of soldiers take at least one prescription drug, and 14 percent are on some form of powerful painkiller.

President Obama briefly addressed the issue of soldier suicides and post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, in a speech on Monday at the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta.

    President Barack Obama: And as so many of you know, PTSD is a pain like no other—the nightmares that keep coming back, the rage that strikes suddenly, the hopelessness that’s led too many of our troops and veterans to take their own lives. So today I want to say, in very personal terms, to anyone who is struggling, don’t suffer in silence. It’s not a sign of weakness to reach out for support. It’s a sign of strength. Your country needs you. We are here for you. We are here to help you stand tall. Don’t give up. Reach out. We’re making major investments in awareness, outreach and suicide prevention, hiring more mental health professionals, improving care and treatment. For those of you suffering from PTSD, we’re making it a whole lot easier to qualify for VA benefits. From now on, if a VA doctor confirms a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, that is enough, no matter what war you served in.

Amy Goodman: But the families of soldiers who took their own lives say President Obama’s words ring hollow. Today we talk to the parents of two soldiers who committed suicide. Even though their sons died in the military, they’ve yet to receive condolence letters from the President—not because of an oversight, but because of a longstanding US policy to deny presidential condolence letters to families of soldiers who have committed suicide.

Gregg Keesling was among the first to raise awareness of this issue. He’s the father of Chancellor Keesling, a US soldier who took his own life June 19th, 2009, on his second tour of duty in Iraq. During his first deployment, Chancellor suffered mental health issues so severe he was placed on suicide watch. After getting back to the United States, Chance turned down a bonus offer to return to Iraq in the hopes that he wouldn’t be redeployed and could get his life together. But he was called back in May. One month later, he committed suicide in Iraq. Gregg Keesling joins us from Indianapolis.

And joining us also from Chicopee, Massachusetts, are Kevin and Joyce Lucey. Their son, Jeff Lucey, took his own life June 22nd, 2004, after returning home from military duty in Iraq. Just a month earlier, Kevin and Joyce Lucey had Jeff involuntarily committed to a VA hospital. But the hospital discharged him after a few days. Two weeks later, Kevin Lucey came home to find his son hanging from a hose in the cellar. Lying on his bed were the dog tags of two unarmed Iraqi prisoners Jeffrey had said he was forced to shoot. The Luceys sued the VA for negligence, and the US government settled the case for $350,000. The Luceys are now plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Prudential that claims the insurance giant cheated the families of dead soldiers out of more than $100 million in interest on their life insurance policies.

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