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Top military court grapples with potential criminality of suicide attempts in military

Lazzaric Caldwell file pic

Feb. 1: Marine Corps Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell poses for a photo in Oceanside, Calif. Caldwell, a Marine Corps private who cut his wrists in an undisputed suicide attempt, is fighting his conviction for intentional self-injury, a military charge often used to prosecute service members who try to shirk their duties.AP

As the military grapples with chronic suicides, officials are trying to strike a balance between helping survivors and punishing them under the longstanding penalties for "self-injury."

The nation’s top military appeals court has been grappling with the law's guidelines given the fact that last year suicides accounted for 20 percent of military deaths.

"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," Judge Walter T. Cox III said, according to The Army Times.

Cox, along with four other members of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, listened Tuesday to a case involving Marine Corps Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell. In 2010, Caldwell used a razor blade to slit his wrists while in Okinawa.

'Because he failed, he was prosecuted'

- Navy Lt. Michael Hanzel, Caldwell's military lawyer

The private, who has been diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, pleaded guilty to self-injury and was handed a bad conduct discharge, Knight Ridder reported on Military.com. He was also convicted of larceny, driving without a license and drug possession, the report said.

Under the law, active-duty members who fail a suicide attempt may be prosecuted if their case was deemed conduct that causes "prejudice to good order and discipline."

The Army Times reports that mental health professionals warn against these prosecutions because they may prevent troubled troops from coming forward. 

The prosecutor in this case said Caldwell fell under the category of "prejudicial to good order and discipline," because he slit his wrist to "thwart the commander’s intent," The Army Times reported. Caldwell, who was never deployed to combat, was reportedly being disciplined for stealing a belt at an off-base store.

In an earlier appellate brief, the government stated that Caldwell "was not charged with, or convicted of, attempting suicide. He was charged with, and properly convicted of, intentionally injuring himself to the prejudice of good order and discipline or the discredit of the service."

Caldwell's attorney called suicide attempts an "illness."

"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," Navy Lt. Michael Hanzel, Caldwell's military lawyer said.

The four-member panel, for its part, appeared to be split on its opinion.

"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?"

The Pentagon, for its part, is reviewing the current law, the Army Times reported and a top attorney from the Defense Department ordered military officials to consider changes to the Court-Martial manual

"We are not mental health professionals. How do we craft rule that determines whether someone … really wanted to die?" one judge asked, according to the Army Times.

Click for more from The Army Times

Click for more from Military.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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