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.

H/T: Allahpundit

FILED UNDER: Health, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Boyd says:

    I have never understood the impetus to regard a suicide attempt as a crime. It makes no sense to me.

  2. Dave A says:

    From one of Dr. Joyner’s article’s at the atlantic:
    “At the same time, it’s fair to note that the comparative statistics are skewed, and that once we control for age, sex, and level of education, veterans are doing better in all these categories than their non-veteran counterparts. It’s vital that we make this distinction, lest we falsely blame service for problems better explained by other variables…”

    Not trying to diminish the gravity of suicide, but at least according to your co-blogger the “unique and heightened suicide rate influenced by combat experience” sort of description of the situation at hand is not really an accurate description.

  3. mattb says:

    Completely agree with you.

    Though, on a purely philisophical level, it makes more sense for the military to criminalize the activity. But that isn’t to say it really makes sense.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    @Boyd: There’s a logic to it: if one assumes life is in fact an inalienable right, then suicide is by definition self-murder.

  5. Dave A says:

    In regards to the actual subject, how someone could see what happens to an individual and their family during severe depression or attempted suicide and come to the conclusion that some jail time or a demotion is in order is just completely beyond me.

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Dave A: This articile is about active duty personnel, not veterans. I don’t have time to Google for you – there’s been plenty of coverage of the current problem with active duty suicides that you can find for yourself.

    @ Doug; In my mind, the only thing that the possibility of a criminal sentence accomplishes (assuming the person making the attempt is aware of said criminalization) is a desire to make sure one’s attempt is a successful one.

  7. @Dave A:

    I believe James was addressing the contention that some have made that suicide is somehow a worse problem in the military than in society as a whole. As he notes, that isn’t necessarily the case. The real issue appears to be that it has become more of an issue inside the military than it has been in the past.

  8. legion says:

    “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?”

    While I agree that treating it as a crime is wrong, and counterproductive at best, Stucky raises an important point – nobody in the actual military has the authority to change the UCMJ. Until it’s addressed by Congress (hey – it’s one more thing for them to do besides create jobs!), I do see a possible temporary solution, though… I think (IMHO) the main reason for criminalizing suicide attempts (at least from a military perspective) is the idea that the person who’s doing it is just trying to get out of combat. Aside from being a patently absurd justification, it ought to be within a prosecutor’s realm to determine if a soldier is actually trying to kill themself – which should be treated as a mental health issue – or just trying to self-injure to get out of duty, which is prosecutable under a different regulation for shirking, IIRC.

  9. Dave A says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Fair enough, I read your comments differently than you intended.

  10. @Boyd:

    I have never understood the impetus to regard a suicide attempt as a crime.

    You, of all the commenters here, should understand it. It is a religious crime; refusing to continue existing is, in a way, the ultimate act of defiance toward God. It became a civil crime the same way so many other religious prohibitions became civil crimes in our country.

  11. John Cole says:

    That’s insane.

  12. PJ says:

    Obviously this should be punishable by death.

    Or perhaps free premium health care for the rest of the criminal’s life so that he or she may be denied what he or she wanted for many, many years.

  13. john personna says:

    There are lots of things which are criminalized as a means of forcing treatment. Unsurprising.

    I hope nobody is arguing the logical alternative, which would be suicide booths on the corner, Futurama style.

  14. john personna says:

    (I had a friend who was staying at a beach house. It was one of those places where you could eat and drink on your patio, but if you stepped through the gate you were “in public.” He went out to say good night to a parting guest while holding a beer and was nabbed by the police. The judge sentenced him to something like 6 AA meetings. So that would be an example of criminalization for treatment. In that case, preventive?

    Anyway, my friend was a stock broker. The town and AA meeting were affluent. He found new clients.)

  15. grumpy realist says:

    Is this a left-over bit of the UCMJ? It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a historical bit of legal garbage.

  16. jd says:

    “The prosecutions will continue until morale improves.”

  17. RWB says:

    Sounds a lot like beating a baby to get it to stop crying, but who knows, maybe if they make attempted suicide a capital offense it will act as a deterrent

  18. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @john personna: Close, but not quite. Criminalizing things like this gives the authorities an unquestionable right to get involved in a situation. It’s hardly the ideal solution, but it’s better in a lot of cases than a shrug and a “whatever, just try not to take anyone with you or leave too much of a mess.”

    Someone locked up on suicide watch at least has time to reconsider their decision… and they’re more likely to live until an involuntary commitment can be arranged.

    And in the military, where one is essentially government property, there are further complications. A WWII veteran I knew told me of soldiers being punished for severe sunburns, under the principle of “damaging Army property.”

  19. john personna says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    You are denying the reality of our legal system and sentences which mandate counseling.

    Denying reality is a thing, I realize.

  20. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @john personna: Just because I didn’t mention it doesn’t mean I deny it, john. I was speaking historically.

    And I stand by what I said: arresting someone for attempting suicide, charging them, and keeping them in custody under suicide watch buys them time, if nothing else. It’s a clumsy solution, but it’s better than nothing.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    “Give your souls to Jesus, ’cause your asses belong to the Marines.”

  22. Anderson says:

    Maybe a Suicide Marksmanship class is needed, so no soldier fails to get it right the 1st time?


  23. Boyd says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    You, of all the commenters here, should understand it.

    That just goes to show what little you know about me, SD, relative to what you think you know about me. In my personal faith, non-believers aren’t bound by the religious law/teachings/principles/guidelines I follow. One has to volunteer for that duty.

    And it appears you misread or misinterpreted my final statement above. I didn’t say I don’t understand how the status quo came to be, I said it doesn’t make sense to me.

  24. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Boyd: Shut up, Boyd. You have no right to defy their stereotype and profiling of you. In fact, it might even qualify as a hate crime.

  25. Actually, attempted suicide falls under the UCMJ punitive article of “malingering,” which is the intentional self-affliction of illness or injury (or feigning the same). The UCMJ addresses it thus, Article 115:

    “Any person subject to this chapter who for the purpose of avoiding work, duty, or service”—

    (1) feigns illness, physical disablement, mental lapse or derangement; or

    (2) intentionally inflicts self-injury; shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

    Like it or not, this does describe suicide attempt by active-duty members. However, the impetus for the Article historically has not been to prevent suicide or punish attempts, but to ensure that soldiers bound for combat could not injure themselves, or fake illness, just bad enough to avoid being sent into battle.

    Should failed suicide attempts be subject to judicial punishment? Well, when I was a company commander, I did punish such attempts. Understand,l though, that this was the early 1980s and it was a training company. You’d be amazed how many enlistees back then decided they’d made a mistake and would dump a bottle of Tylenol down their throat. Since it’s darn near impossible to OD on Tylenol (you can, but it takes thousands of pills) they’d just get sick (maybe) and go to hospital. Then we’d get them back and discharge them administratively. In the meantime, I slapped an Article 15 on them for malingering a took away a week’s pay. Sorry, private, you’re not going to get to just change your mind scot free.

    Fact is, though, that these were not actual attempts at suicide. The trainees well knew that a bottle of Tylenol (aspirin was unobtainable by them) was harmless. They were nothing more than “I want to go home to mommy” gestures. But darn if I wasn’t going to make them pay for it, literally. Every other commander did, too.

    I did have one soldier who made a serious attempt at suicide, by deliberately falling from a high wall onto concrete below. Presumably, he thought he’d hit his head and that would be that. Problem was, no one witnessed the actual fall and the presumption, which the trainee never rebutted, was that it was accidental. The medical officer put him on convalescent leave and we sent him home. He killed himself there with auto exhaust in the garage. Not until we got that news did any dots connect about his fall. Really a sad thing.