Is Criminalizing Suicide the Best Way to Help Our Troops?

Recently the U.S. military decided to criminalize suicide.  While it’s unclear as to the exact reason why, most speculate the decision is likely a combined effort to lessen suicide rates among active-duty military members and a strategy to save the military’s reputation from being tarnished.

Last year, some 301 known military suicides accounted for 20 percent of U.S. military deaths.  From 2001 to August 2012, about 2,676 suicides were counted by the U.S. military.  By October 2012 the number of Army suicides had already surpassed 2011’s totals, causing concern for U.S. Army officials who had implemented additional programs and outreach this year.

Inspired by Marine Corps Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell, who slit his wrists in an attempt to commit suicide in January 2010, the military’s use of the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s Article 134, which makes “self-injury” a potential criminal offense, has largely resurfaced much to the chagrin of mental health experts. Mental health counselors advocate that criminalizing attempted suicides might decrease the likelihood troops would seek help because they may fear potential prosecution by the military.

Those who survive suicide attempts are currently prosecuted if it’s decided their conduct causes “prejudice to good order and discipline” or has a “tendency to bring the service into disrepute.”  Troops who succeed in killing themselves won’t be charged with a crime – in fact they will be treated as if they “died honorably.”  This means, if Caldwell had succeeded in killing himself, his family would have received a letter of condolence from the president and his death would have been considered in the line of duty.  Since he did not succeed in killing himself Caldwell now finds himself in court.

“If suicide is indeed the worst enemy the armed forces has in 2012 – in terms of killing soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines,” Senior Judge Walter Cox III said, “then why should we criminalize it when it fails?”  Cox and the four other members of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces reportedly sounded skeptical about the military’s claim that Caldwell’s actions discredited the Marine Corps, yet they didn’t want to dismiss the case either.

Judge Margaret Ryan added that she and the other judges “are not mental health professionals.  How do we craft rules that determines whether someone … really wanted to die?”

While combat stress is linked to why some active-duty troops commit suicide, other known causes of suicide include marital and financial stress as well as health problems.

Marine Corps Maj. David Roberts argued Caldwell’s case “is not about prosecuting suicide or attempted suicide,” but that “It’s about prosecuting an act that was prejudicial to good order and discipline.”

Roberts did admit later that even the trial judge thought self-injury was an “odd charge” for military prosecutors to use against Caldwell.  Similarly, Chief Judge James Baker asked about the military’s intentions to charge someone who developed post-traumatic stress disorder after five combat tours.

To answer Baker, the Pentagon referred to a statement made earlier this year by Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson, who asked a Pentagon advisory committee to consider revising the Manual for Courts-Martial so that a “genuine attempt at suicide” may not require disciplinary action.

Caldwell’s fate has yet to be determined, as the judges hinted they were uncomfortable with issues Caldwell raised during the case.


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