Should Soldiers Who Survive Suicide Attempts Be Court-Martialed?

Should soldiers who survive suicide attempts be court-martialed — tossed from the military in shame? It’s a sticky question that gets stickier on examination. USA Today looks at it through the prism of a case in which a Marine private was court-martialed after being convicted of ‘self-injury’ after he slit his wrists in a barracks in Okinawa in 2010:

He was convicted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s Article 134, known as the General Article, because the judge found his self-injury was prejudicial to good order and discipline and brought discredit upon the service.

At least one judge on the military’s high court agreed with that argument. “You don’t think that the public will think less of the military if people are killing themselves? …There’s literature out there that these things come in waves,” said Judge Margaret Ryan.

Underpinning the case is the question of why the military criminalizes attempted suicide when it does not treat successful suicide as a crime.

“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,” noted Navy Lt. Michael Hanzel, the military lawyer representing Caldwell.

Suicides among active-duty troops have soared in recent years, from less than 200 in 2005 to 309 in 2009, and a spike this year has put 2012 on track to set a new record high.

The court seems to be weighing, from a particularly military point of view, a two-stage question that is actually quite slippery: Within the military’s serve-the-group culture, will punishing suicide attempts actually reduce suicides by stigmatizing the act of attempting it? Or will stigmatizing the act actually raise the rate because it will also stigmatize the impulse or thought — or depression generally —‚ and thus prevent people from seeking help? In general, stigmatizing any given behavior does tend to reduce it, and one might expect that to be all the more true in rules-based subcultures like the military. This is probably part of why those in the military are generally more law-abiding across the board.

But is it possible, even within the rules-based military culture, to stigmatize suicide without stigmatizing depression and thus discouraging treatment? My guess is No. But if the USA Today story is paraphrasing the trial fairly, the court is struggling with just these questions. I suspect the military may find no way to be truly consistent here, or to come up with any rulings or policies that hold no difficult contradictions or confounds. As it is, however, the military’s stance is already all a-hoo: Soldiers who are successful in committing suicide are put to rest with full military honors, while those who fail to — but succeed, as it were, in living — are subject to courtmartial.

A reminder here to keep comments respectful, svp.

via Military court wrestles with punishing suicide attempts.

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