Military Judges Debate Prosecuting Soldiers Who Attempt Suicide
Much has been written recently about the alarmingly high suicide rate among American servicemen, especially those serving in combat regions such as Afghanistan or who have recently returned from tours of duty. The general consensus seems to be that much of what we’re seeing is an outgrowth of the PTSD problem that has been a problem going back to at least the Vietnam War and probably long before that. Suggestions have been made that the military needs to do a better job of spotting soldiers who may be mentally troubled and seeing that they get proper medical attention. That seems like a good idea, and it’s certainly better than the one debated recently by high-ranking military judges:
WASHINGTON — Marine Corps Pvt. Lazzaric T. Caldwell slit his wrists and spurred a legal debate that’s consuming the Pentagon, as well as the nation’s top military appeals court.
On Tuesday, the court wrestled with the wisdom of prosecuting Caldwell after his January 2010 suicide attempt. Though Caldwell pleaded guilty, he and his attorneys now question his original plea and the broader military law that makes “self-injury” a potential criminal offense.
The questions resonate amid what Pentagon leaders have called an “epidemic” of military suicides.
“If suicide is indeed the worst enemy the armed forces have,” Senior Judge Walter T. Cox III said, “then why should we criminalize it when it fails?”
For 40 minutes Tuesday morning, Cox and the four other members of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces sounded deeply ambivalent about the complexities involved in prosecuting members of the military who try to kill themselves. While several judges sounded skeptical about the government’s claim that Caldwell’s actions brought discredit to the Marine Corps, judges also sounded hesitant about ruling out prosecution altogether.
“I question whether it’s up to us to say that under no circumstance can someone be prosecuted,” Judge Scott W. Stucky said. “Isn’t that up to Congress?”
Ultimately, of course, the matter is up to Congress, which has the authority rewrite the Uniform Code of Military Justice at any time. In this case, it strikes me that the idea of treating attempted suicide as a criminal matter, even in the military, is a massive mistake that betrays a view of mental illness that went out of style decades ago. People who try to kill themselves aren’t criminals, they’re deeply disturbed and in need to serious help. Prosecuting them isn’t going to accomplish anything.Well, no, I take that back, it will accomplish one thing. Criminalizing attempted suicide would increase the stigma that mental illness still has in our society and make it even less likely that a soldier is in need of help will seek it out rather than going down a dark and tragic road.
This is one really bad idea that needs to be filed away and forgotten.