HAGERSTOWN, Md. – A discharged Marine private who slit his wrists in a suicide attempt is fighting his military conviction for deliberately injuring himself, arguing the punishment is inconsistent with the armed forces' efforts to battle a rise in suicides during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's not clear how often the Marines or any other service branch prosecute active duty members for trying to kill themselves. But the defense lawyer for Pvt. Lazzaric T. Caldwell says it's wrong to punish service members with mental health problems for genuine suicide attempts. Suicide prevention has become a priority across the military as numbers climbed in the past decade with the increasing stress of combat and multiple deployments in the wars.
Caldwell, 25, of Camp Pendleton, Calif., never deployed to a war zone but was diagnosed in 2009 with post-traumatic stress disorder and a personality disorder, according to court records. In 2010, he slashed his wrists in his barracks at Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan.
He pleaded guilty at a court-martial that year to "intentional self-injury without intent to avoid service," a criminal charge that the government says helps maintain good order and discipline in the armed forces. The charge is sometimes used in self-injury cases when there isn't enough evidence to prove malingering, military justice experts say.
Caldwell was sentenced to 180 days in jail and a bad conduct discharge. Military rules allow an appeal after a guilty plea in some cases, but Caldwell's initial appeal was denied in December. His lawyer, Navy Lt. Mike Hanzel, said this week he will ask the military's highest court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington, to hear the case.
"I think it definitely touches important issues which are affecting all the branches of the armed forces right now," Hanzel said in a telephone interview from Bremerton, Wash.
Military prosecutors didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. In an appellate brief, the government stated 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."
Hanzel claims military law prohibits intentional self-injury prosecutions for genuine suicide attempts induced by depression, PTSD or other mental illness. He said there should be a presumption such clients can't form a guilty intent. He also noted that successful suicides are presumed by the military to have been committed in the line of duty, and the service member's death isn't considered to have been due to their own misconduct.
"If you succeed in committing suicide your service is treated honorably and your family receives full benefits," Hanzel wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "If you are unsuccessful in a genuine suicide attempt, you can receive a federal conviction and get a bad-conduct discharge and jail time, which is what happened to Pvt. Caldwell."
The military has had an increase in suicide rates among all branches since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Marine Corps reported a record 175 suicide attempts among active-duty Marines in 2011. It said 33 Marines committed suicide last year, down from 37 in 2010.
The Marine Corps and Army couldn't immediately provide statistics on prosecutions or convictions for intentional self-injury without intent to avoid service. The Navy said no such cases involving sailors came before Navy court-martials last year.
Retired Army Judge Advocate Victor M. Hansen, a professor at the New England School of Law in Boston, said it's fairly unusual for commanders to convene courts-martial on self-injury charges. "It happens but it doesn't happen a lot," he said.
Craig Bryan, a former Air Force psychologist who has studied military suicides, said he's heard of only a handful of cases of service members disciplined for a suicide attempt. In those instances, the military interpreted the suicide attempts as a way to avoid disciplinary action, said Bryan, associate director of the University of Utah's National Center for Veterans Studies. Disciplinary action is generally among the most common stress-inducing events preceding military suicides and suicide attempts, he said.
In 2010, Caldwell told the court he tried to kill himself minutes after he was told he was going to the brig to await trial on charges including larceny for allegedly helping a friend steal a belt from a local shop. He had learned a day earlier of a friend's death, and he said those events were the last straws in a series of emotional blows that included the deaths of several family members, a stabbing by his former fiance, a 60-day confinement for other alleged offenses and personal problems within his unit.
Caldwell said after he was patched up and put in the brig, he was surprised to learn he would be charged with self-injury.
"I thought it was unfair and I thought it was just kind of morally wrong to punish somebody for something of that nature," Caldwell said.
"Seeing the kind of state I was in, there should have been a way of getting help instead of just a punishment," he said.
Caldwell said he took the plea in hopes it would be the quickest way to get home to see his sick mother.
The bad-conduct discharge made him ineligible for certain veteran's benefits, though, so Caldwell, who has since married an active-duty Marine, said he's getting no mental health treatment.
The judge in Caldwell's case accepted his guilty plea without ordering a mental health examination, which Hanzel claims was another error.
The charge has been on the books since at least the 1940s. It is applied in self-injury cases in which the government can't prove an intent to avoid service but can show that the act was detrimental to good order and discipline, or could bring discredit upon the armed forces.
Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said the case raises fundamental questions about the purpose of military justice, which allows for prosecution of some acts that wouldn't be crimes in the civilian world.
"One would have to assume that the pre-trial investigating officer and the convening authority would have given long and prayerful consideration to the wisdom of pursuing such a case," he said.
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this story.