WASHINGTON - Marine Corps Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell slit his wrists and spurred a legal debate that's got the Pentagon's attention 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.
"If suicide is indeed the worst enemy the armed forces have," Senior Judge Walter Cox said, "then why should we criminalize it when it fails?"
For 40 minutes on 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.
Last year, the 301 known military suicides accounted for 20 percent of U.S. military deaths. From 2001 to August 2012, the U.S. military counted 2,676 suicides.
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."
Now a civilian resident of Oceanside, Calif., Caldwell was a 23-year-old Marine private in January 2010. He'd been diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after suffering through other personal problems. After Caldwell was told he was being sent to the brig over the theft of a belt, he slit his wrists in the barracks at Camp Schwab, Okinawa.