Why Won't Obama Send Condolence Letters to the Parents of Soldiers Who Have Committed Suicide?
The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by Democracy Now! -- it has been edited for length and clarity.
Background: Gregg and Jannett Keesling are the parents of Chancellor Keesling, a US soldier who took his own life on June 19th of this year. Chancellor was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. During his first deployment, he suffered mental health issues so severe he was placed on suicide watch. After getting back to the United States, Chancellor had turned down a bonus offer to return to Iraq in the hopes he wouldn’t be redeployed. But he was called back in May. One month later, he took his own life. Since Chancellor’s death, Gregg and Jannett Keesling have yet to receive a letter of condolence from President Obama. After making inquiries, they discovered that this was not because of an oversight. Instead, it’s because of a longstanding US policy to deny presidential condolence letters to the families of soldiers who take their own lives.
Goodman: Since Chancellor’s death, Gregg and Jannett Keesling have yet to receive a letter of condolence from President Obama. After making inquiries, they discovered this was not because of an oversight. Instead, it’s because of a longstanding US policy to deny presidential condolence letters to the families of soldiers who have committed suicide.
Gregg and Jannett Keesling join us now from Indianapolis, where they live. This is the first time they’re sharing their story in a national broadcast.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Gregg, let me go first to Jannett. Tell us about your son. Tell us about Chancellor. Tell us why he joined the military, his first tour of duty, and then ultimately deciding to go back, or being called back.
Jannett Keesling: Chancellor recruited right out of high school, and this was something he was passionate about, joining the military. I wanted him to go to college, but he said that he wanted to be a soldier. So he was eighteen years old when he joined the Army. He left home in October for his basic training and then was stationed in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
He did very well as a young soldier, acclimated, made friends quickly, enjoyed his training. And then came his first deployment, which we went to visit him. He took off to Iraq, did fairly well, until he had a little bit of hitches and—but served his time. We were always told that he was an absolutely great soldier, very giving, great personality, punctuality. So we were quite proud of him.
Gregg Keesling:Yes. Yes, we were very proud of his service to our country. We had, you know, doubts about him joining, really great doubts. When the war broke out in 2003, when many of us were trying to retreat, he—Chancy decided, “This is my duty.” In fact, he said to his sister, “We must have a military, and somebody’s got to be in it.” And I decided I could support that. But once he did his first tour—and he was married at the time, and his marriage did not go very well. His marriage broke up during that deployment. And during the second deployment, he also had problems again. And that’s what ultimately happened.
Goodman: Now, explain the part where he was offered a bonus to return, but decided not to, because he didn’t want to go back to Iraq.
Gregg Keesling:Well, when you leave the enlisted Army and you’re moving to the Reserves—and I think they needed soldiers, so they were offering soldiers a bonus to be able to return back to Iraq at an earlier day. And so, he knew he had some mental health issues. He was undergoing treatment at the VA. And he said that—he turned down this bonus. It prevented them from deploying him for two years. And he felt he would not get deployed. In fact, we sat down as a family, and we said, you know, “President Obama is going to be reelected, and President Obama will end this war, and you won’t have to go.”
But when he did get called up, we sat down, and we talked all the different options. You know, we’re dual citizens, and we actually talked about Chancy going to Jamaica to stay there. But he looked at us and said, you know, “Dad, I’m an American, too. I’m a soldier. This is my duty. I can handle it. I will go.” And sadly, for us as a family, it was not the right decision.
And we have learned that during his enlisted time, the mental health issues that he faced never reached his reserve unit. There is actually a law that prevents mental health issues that occur during your enlisted time from passing over to the Reserves. And it’s a law that comes from, you know, our Vietnam days, when reservists were not used in war the way we’ve used them this time. And I think that’s one of the messages we hope gets out, that we look at how mental health issues get transferred to the Guard and the Reserve units as these soldiers are deployed over and over and over again.
Co-Host Sharif Abdel Kouddous:Well, talk about that, because in 2006, on his first tour in Iraq, he was actually placed on a suicide watch. His ammunition was taken away for a week. So you’re saying that information was not available to his superiors or to anyone in the military on his second deployment?
Gregg Keesling:No. No. There is actually a law that prevents that information from passing through. We’ve had a 15-6—what is called a 15 and 6 investigation by the military into our son’s death, and they’ve confirmed that. With our congressional help, we have asked, you know, for a review with General Casey, and they’ve answered our questions back, and they’ve confirmed that there is a law that prevents that information from passing from the enlisted to the Reserve.
So his commander in Iraq—he was with the 961st Engineering Brigade, and his commander had no idea that he had had mental health. It was incumbent upon him, the soldier, to share it. And I think that’s very difficult to put a soldier in that type of situation. I mean, being a military person, you don’t—you’re tough. And our son wanted to be tough, and he wanted to be a good soldier.
Co-Host Sharif Abdel Kouddous:Now, in 2009, just hours before he ended up taking his own life, he sent both of you an email. Can you talk about what he said in that? And then you spoke with him after reading that email.
Jannett Keesling: I spoke to Chancellor the night before he died for about four minutes. And as always, he wore a really tough exterior, because even after conversations with some of the soldiers after he died, no one saw that he was in any type of distress or trouble. I know they say he was sleeping. He was happy that morning. He was singing.
But what he did tell me that night is that he was going to have a very long, difficult day. His conversation was quite brief. Normally he would say that he loves me, and he would say goodbye. But this time he simply hung up. I had the feeling that something was definitely bothering him more than the norm. And the next thing we knew, they were at our door saying that he had—
Gregg Keesling:He had passed.
Jannett Keesling: —passed away.
Goodman: Where was he?
Jannett Keesling: But nobody saw.
Gregg Keesling:He was at Camp Stryker in Baghdad. And he—
Goodman: And what did they explain to you? What happened?
Gregg Keesling:That he had gone to a latrine and locked himself in the latrine and took his own life, with his M4.
Co-Host Sharif Abdel Kouddous:Did you try to reach anyone in Iraq? His superiors, a medical officer or a chaplain, or anything like that?
Gregg Keesling:We did not. This happened eleven or twelve hours before, when we had this email. It’s leading up into our night. My wife talked to Chancy, you know, quite a bit, and we really thought—we knew he had had a fight with his girlfriend. We knew he was a bit distraught over that and the difficulty of trying to run his life from Iraq, his civilian life back here. But we had spoken to him, and Jannett especially had spoken, done a lot of talking, and we thought he was going to the chaplain.
So, as his morning is coming into Baghdad, we thought that he was going to go see the chaplain, but he did make a few more phone calls and could not reach the people he was trying to reach. And my wife had made a strong attempt to go to the home of the girlfriend to get her—“Please talk to him. Please talk to him, because he doesn’t sound good.” And they found his body at 8:31 a.m. Baghdad time. And the email came, that he wanted so bad, and it came at about 8:58 or so Baghdad time, so just a little bit too late.
And we did not know—we know you go to the Red Cross. We know there’s Military OneSource. We know there’s these things to do. We did not know that we had the time to do that. We also thought that we had talked him through. We never thought this would happen. And it’s one of those tragedies.
Goodman: Gregg, in the email he sent you, did he say he wanted to commit suicide?
Gregg Keesling:Yes, he did. Yes, he did.
Goodman: And then you talked to him, Jannett, after that?
Jannett Keesling: Yes. That email came a couple of days before he died.
Gregg Keesling:No, no, it was twelve hours.
Jannett Keesling: Twelve hours before he died? OK.
Gregg Keesling:Twelve hours. Twelve, thirteen hours before he died.
Jannett Keesling: But what we spoke to him, I did several texts, emails, phone conversations, trying to tell him, you know, so many people loved him, and he should hang in there. We talked about the chaplain. And he’s the one who brought it up to me. He said, “I’m going to go see the chaplain.” And I said, “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”
He knew that he was in trouble, but he never shared that well with anybody that was close to him, his roommate or etc. He did share it with us, as a family. And I think we just thought that he’d be strong enough to pull over this little hump. The lessons that you learn is that you can’t also manage from your end here, and for the future, tell families, “Intervene anyhow you can. You know, find a way,” because a crisis like this can change a person in a few minutes. And it did.
Gregg Keesling:Yeah, we believe our—go ahead.
Goodman: Go ahead, Gregg.
Gregg Keesling:Well, I just—we do not believe our son would have taken his life if he had been here at home. This would not have happened. This is directly related to his military service. Our casualty officer—the military has been very, very, very good to us in helping us. And our casualty officer, though, said the same thing, that “We do not believe your son would have taken his life if he was back home.” And, you know, every other benefit that the military provides to families has been afforded to us. We were flown to Dover to greet the body, in a very emotional experience. And we had a military burial and the twenty-one-gun salute. And Jannett was presented the American flag, which is a very moving ceremony.
But the issue of presidential condolences—in fact, we were shocked. I began—President Obama has set up the suicide task force, and I began to talk with Brigadier General Colleen McGuire and members of staff there, and they were very helpful and wonderful. And during those conversations, I mentioned, “By the way, you know, when do you think the letter comes from the President?” And she goes, “I don’t know. I’ll check it out.” And we talked again a few times. And every time at the end of the conversation, you know, “How are you guys doing?” and all that. And I said, “By the way, when are we going to get the letter from the President?” And on our third conversation, one of the staff members said to me, “Oh, my god, Mr. Keesling, I’ve just discovered there’s a longstanding policy that prevents the President from acknowledging the death of a soldier who takes his life in the war theater by his own hand.” And I nearly dropped to my knees. I was shocked. And I just said to her that I think this is a policy that should change.
Our loss is no different. He was on his second tour. The investigative report shows that he was a good soldier. One of my favorite comments in the report is that his unit commander said, or unit leader says, “I wish I had fifteen Keeslings.” He was a good soldier. He helped other soldiers. In fact, there’s a soldier back stateside today who was at risk of suicide that Chancy intervened to help. And we got his uniform back, and when my sister was packing away the uniform, she found in the pocket and pulled out the suicide information card. He had it in his pocket of his uniform. And he helped other soldiers, but he was unable to help himself.
And so, our grief is deep. And, you know, the letter won’t stop—we’ll still be hollow inside for the rest of our lives, but the acknowledgement from the President that our son gave his life in service to the causes of the United States is important to us, and I think it should be important to the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of suicide victims in this war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well. It’s my understanding that the suicide rate in the military has, for the first time, surpassed the civilian suicide rate. The mental health issues are quite severe. And so, we’re just simply appealing to the President to change the policy, to offer condolences to the families, like ours, that are struggling and suffering with the unique form of suffering a military suicide leaves in its wake. And it’s been especially hard for us.
The President was—has been on TV, and we’ve seen news reports where he talks about how he anguishes over writing the letters to the families. He was talking about, you know, whether he would deploy more soldiers to Afghanistan, and he said he has to think long and hard because he has to anguish and write those letters to families. But our family is not one of those.
Goodman: In fact, we wanted to play one of those clips of President Obama talking about writing those letters to fallen soldiers being one of the hardest parts of his job. This is what he said to Veterans of Foreign Wars in August.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They’re the families that my wife Michelle has met at bases across the country, the spouses back home doing the parenting of two, the children who wonder when mom and dad may be coming home, the parents who watch their sons and daughters go off to war, and the families who lay a loved one to rest—and the pain that lasts a lifetime.
But as we protect America, our men and women in uniform must always be treated as what they are: America’s most precious resource. As commander in chief, I have a solemn responsibility for their safety. And there’s nothing more sobering than signing a letter of condolence to the family of servicemen or women who have given their lives for our country.
Goodman: That’s President Obama. Gregg and Jannett, your response?
Gregg Keesling:Well, that our family and the hundreds of families like ours are not part of that group. And it’s almost inconceivable to me and to Jannett that this could be a policy. We don’t know where it comes from, why it’s there, you know, how far it goes back, and what the purpose of [inaudible]—
Goodman: Has your congressional delegation intervened?
Gregg Keesling:Oh, yes, they’ve—Congressman Burton, Congressman Carson, Congressman Hill, Senator Bayh, all of them have been aggressive, I would say, in trying to reach out and say, you know, “Can we change this policy?” It is our understanding that it is under review now. Again, I just come back: What could be the reason, and why would it not just be automatically changed?
You know, there’s—you know, suicide historically has not been a nice thing in society or in the military. But there’s been great strides made in recent years. There’s General Graham, who there was—he was in People magazine, whose son—had a son who died in combat in Iraq and then a son who died stateside of suicide. And I think General Graham is one of the heroes that has really pushed to make changes about, you know, things like us being able to fly to Dover and to greet the body and to bring forward.
And I just feel that maybe President Obama didn’t even know this was the policy. It’s one of those lagging changes that maybe has just not caught up. And you know how hard it is to push for this. You know, you do feel guilt in your—you know, you have this pain and maybe other families, it’s been hard to come out and make this push, but that’s why we’re here today—
Goodman: And Jannett—
Gregg Keesling:—to say, “Please, President.”
Goodman: —why would this be important to you to receive a letter from President Obama?
Jannett Keesling: You know, I thought about it for a long time. And Chancellor was extremely precious to us. And I sat around thinking, he died on foreign soil for us, you know? He sacrificed his young life, six years. And a letter from the President is a little bit of closure to show us that he appreciated our son’s life. And I know he’s busy with a lot of issues, but this is not one that is so hard to change. I mean, it would give us some closure, you know, some feeling of—that we were appreciated or our sacrifice was not in vain. And that’s why I really am pushing forward for families like us who have suffered and will continue to suffer, receives a letter from the President, thanking us for our son’s life or a person’s contribution to this war.