Amid what Pentagon leaders acknowledge is an "epidemic" of military suicides, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces on Tuesday debated whether the military should pursue court martials against soldiers who attempt suicide.
Under military law, "self-injury" is a potential criminal offense.
The current debate was spurred by the case of Marine Corps Pt. Lazzaric T. Caldwell, who slit his wrists in January 2010, Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers reports.
Caldwell initially pleaded guilty, but now questions his original plea and the law.
On Tuesday, 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," McClatchy reports. "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 prosecuting altogether.
Andrew Tilgman of the Military Times quotes Judge Walter T. Cox III of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces:
If suicide is indeed the worst enemy the Armed Forces has in 2012 — in terms of killing soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines — then why should we criminalize it when a guy fails? Seems to me like you’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
Earlier this year, according to McClatchy, Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson asked a Pentagon advisory committee to consider a recommendation that would revise the military law so that a "genuine attempt at suicide" may not require disciplinary action.
Active-duty members of the military who succeed in killing themselves are treated as having died honorably. Active-duty members who try and fail may be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice if the suicide attempt is deemed conduct that causes “prejudice to good order and discipline” or has a “tendency to bring the service into disrepute.”
According to the Military Times, on Tuesday, Caldwell's military lawyer, Navy Lt. Michael Hanzel noted, "If (Caldwell) had succeeded, like 3,000 service members have in the past decade, he would have been treated like his service was honorable, his family would have received a letter of condolence from the president and his death would have been considered in the line of duty. Because he failed, he was prosecuted."
Last year, 301 known military suicides accounted for 20 percent of US military deaths, according to McClatchy. From 2001 to August 2012, the US military counted 2,676 suicides.
Suicide among veterans is also more common, and 3,871 veterans enrolled in VA care killed themselves in 2008 and 2009.
The Joint Service Committee on Military Justice will ultimately make a suggestion on future action.