Honor denied some families of fallen troops

Gregg and Jannett Keesling at their home in Indianapolis. Behind them is an empty spot on a memorial wall for their son, Chance, where they'd planned to display a presidential condolence letter. They haven't received one.
CBS News/Elaine Quijano

INDIANAPOLIS - President Obama has spoken often about the weight he feels every time he signs a letter of condolence to a military family. And, he has said, there are few days when he doesn't sign one.

But you may be surprised to learn what CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano found out -- not every military family that suffers a loss gets a letter from the commander in chief.

"I miss you Chance, I do," says Gregg Keesling as he touched his son's headstone.

Father's Day marked two years since Gregg and Jannett Keesling's son, 25-year-old Army Specialist Chance Keesling, died.

"We did get a full military burial, with the 21 gun salute and the playing of "Taps," Gregg says.

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Keesling was on his second tour in Iraq. His marriage had broken up during his first deployment, and he was struggling with emotional problems this time. But no one knew how much he was suffering.

In June 2009, he recorded a video for his girlfriend's niece. But days later, after a fight with that girlfriend, Keesling shot himself on his post in Iraq.

His father Gregg says, "I think his last words to Jannett were "I think my day's not going to go very well.'"

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Every military family whose loved one is killed in combat receives a condolence letter signed by the president. But there would not be a letter for the Keesling family, as a military official explained in a phone call to Gregg.

"I'm sorry Mr. Keesling - there is a long-standing policy that prevents the President of the United States from acknowledging your family," Gregg recalled.

No letter because Chance Keesling's death was a suicide. And it turns out - it's not just families like the Keeslings. Sara Conkling didn't receive one either, for her daughter, Jessica.

"She was willing to put her life on the line and she did lose her life doing it," Sara says. "But it doesn't count as much to them."

Conkling was a Marine Corps pilot training for deployment in combat when her helicopter crashed in San Diego. She was 27.

Families of active duty military who die in stateside training accidents do not receive presidential condolence letters. But Sara Conkling says her daughter's sacrifice deserves that recognition.

Sara says, "You'd like people to have appreciated and understand what she did, that she was important and her loss is a big loss."

The White House tells us this policy goes back decades through several administrations. No one seems to know how it started. But Gregg Keesling's been fighting for nearly 2 years to get it changed.

"We are not asking for anything beyond that but a simple acknowledgement," Gregg says. "A thank you on behalf of the United States of America - thank you - that simple."

In 2009, the White House said it was reviewing the policy. A year and a half later, it still doesn't have an answer for families like the Keeslings.

After working on Elaine's story, we were curious about these presidential condolence letters.

Mrs. Patricia Sherman of Fayetteville, North Carolina was kind enough to share with us the letter that she received -- dated January 22, 2010.

The letter from President Obama begins,

"Dear Patricia,

I am deeply saddened by the loss of your husband, Sergeant Benjamin W. Sherman, USA. No words can ever ease your sorrow, but please take comfort in knowing that he has honored us all beyond measure."

The White House tells us he signs each letter personally.

  • Elaine Quijano

    Elaine Quijano was named a CBS News correspondent in January 2010. Quijano reports for "CBS This Morning" and the "CBS Evening News," and contributes across all CBS News platforms. She is based in New York.