Policy shift in presidential condolence letters

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

NEW YORK - Most families who lose a loved one in the war zones receive a letter of condolence from the President of the United States. But there are a few who do not receive this honor. It's long standing policy - going back many years - that troops who commit suicide in war do not get the president's acknowledgment.

The CBS Evening News first reported on this last week, and tonight we have learned the White House is changing the policy. CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano brings us up to date with the father who led the fight to change the rules.

"I had doubts - many, many doubts," Gregg Keesling said. "We are very pleased."

Last week, Keesling got the call he'd waited nearly two years to receive from the White House.

He learned his family's long wait for acknowledgement from the commander-in-chief was almost over.

"My oldest son came down and we had a hug and it was very emotional," Keesling said. "It was a very good moment that this has been worth it."

Honor denied some families of fallen troops

Since the suicide of his son, 25-year-old Army Specialist Chance Keesling, in Iraq, Gregg and his wife Jannett, have fought to receive a condolence letter. They've written to the president, and asked their local congressmen for help.

Speaking of his son, Keesling said, "He was a good soldier and that's the part that I want to know -- that the country appreciates that he fought he did everything that he was asked to do. It didn't turn out well for him, but at least this country could write a simple letter and that president represents our country and just say thank you for our son's service."

Keesling's now been told he'll receive some kind of recognition from the White House - though not an official presidential condolence letter - in memory of his son.

Chance Keesling shot himself on his second tour in Iraq. Chance had previous emotional problems, and became despondent after a fight with his girlfriend.

Under a decades-old White House policy, inherited by the Obama administration, military families received letters from the president only if their loved ones died on the battlefield or in accidents in war zones.

Now, the policy is changing, Gregg Keesling told us recently, and for families like his, the acknowledgement is long overdue.

"I do think this is about doing what is the right thing and I feel that to the core of my being this is about justice for my son Chance Keesling," Gregg said.

The new policy goes into effect starting today, which is why the Keesling family will not receive an official presidential condolence letter. Their son, Chance, died in 2009. We're told the policy affects all military families whose loved ones die in war zones, regardless of how they died. The new policy does not include stateside training deaths.

  • 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.