Washington: President Barack Obama reversed Wednesday the longstanding US policy of not sending out condolence letters to the families of American troops who commit suicide while deployed in combat zones.
Obama, in a written statement, said he had carried out an extensive review of the policy and stressed that the decision to change it had been taken in consultation with Pentagon chiefs and military commanders.
"This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly," he said.
"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."
In the US army alone, some 156 soldiers committed suicide while on active duty in 2010, slightly less than the 160 in 2009, but still sharply up on the 140 in 2008, official figures show.
US forces have been severely tested by the highly stressful conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffering high numbers of casualties and tours running up to a year or more with frequent rotations.
But the link with the number of suicides is hard to establish: more than a third of the soldiers who committed suicide never traveled to Iraq or Afghanistan.
With the military under serious strain from nearly a decade of war since the September 11 attacks, top officers have tried to raise awareness about the "invisible" wounds of war and to fund assistance for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress and the effects of concussions from roadside bombs.
"Since taking office, I`ve been committed to removing the stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war, which is why I`ve worked to expand our mental health budgets, and ensure that all our men and women in uniform receive the care they need," Obama said.
"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."
A Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department would follow the new policy announced by the White House.
"The administration will now send condolence letters to families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to Operation New Dawn (in Iraq), Operation Enduring Freedom (in Afghanistan) and other combat operations," Colonel Dave Lapan told reporters.
The move is likely to receive a mixed reception from troops and retired officers -- some argue that soldiers who are killed in combat deserve a different or greater recognition than those who take their own lives.
Families of soldiers who committed suicide have long lobbied for the change, as well as a group of lawmakers in Congress.
Both the president and the defense secretary -- Leon Panetta recently replaced the retiring Robert Gates -- write condolence letters to families of fallen soldiers.