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Marine's suicide attempt was a cry for help. Was it also a crime?

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Is the Marine Corps out of line for jailing and punishing a private for attempting suicide?

That’s the question awaiting the military’s highest appeals court.

Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell’s failed suicide in 2010 at an Okinawa base led to a court-martial conviction, 180-day prison sentence and a bad-conduct discharge. The only such case prosecuted by the Marines in at least two years has provided a rare public view of the tension between the military’s desire to punish self-injury and its recent outreach efforts amid a suicide epidemic across the services.

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The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington, D.C., backed the conviction in December, saying it believes the military’s right to try such cases should be unfettered. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has agreed to hear Caldwell’s appeal, with oral arguments scheduled for Nov. 27. Its decision could provide legal grounds for future prosecutions or lead to an appeal to the U.S Supreme Court by either side.

The appeals court said it will rule specifically on whether the military can punish a suicide attempt as self-injury under an article of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that refers to good order and discipline.

Caldwell was not available for an interview. In February, he told The Associated Press he was surprised to learn he would be charged.

“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.

His defense has argued that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and brain seizures and was allowed to plead guilty and convicted by court-martial without a psychological evaluation. “That’s the one thing that stands out about this case … everyone agrees that this was a legitimate suicide attempt,” said Lt. Mike Hanzel, Caldwell’s Navy defense lawyer. “He had been diagnosed with PTSD and he had been on medications for that and depression. He had gone off them recently” and his life hit a “low point” after the deaths of a close friend and his grandmother.

PTSD was diagnosed before Caldwell’s incarceration; he hadn’t been deployed in a combat zone, Hanzel said. The Marine Corps declined to comment or to elaborate on why Caldwell’s case has been pursued, citing the pending appeals hearing.

The decision to press charges is up to local commanders, who take a wide variety of factors into account, including service and character, said Lt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman.

“Prosecuting attempted suicides is not a trend” and there have been no other court cases in the Marine Corps since Caldwell was charged two years ago, a period during which at least 276 Marines tried to kill themselves, according to Flanagan and statistics published by the service.

Overall, the military has been wrestling with surging numbers of suicides during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been asking servicemembers to seek military help despite deep and long-standing stigmas.

In 2010, Caldwell had a PTSD diagnosis and stopped taking a prescribed anti-depressant, which he claims caused brain seizures. He also was having a “variety of personal problems” with his unit at Camp Schwab and was facing pretrial confinement for larceny after failing to take action when a Japanese friend shoplifted a purse from an off-base store, according to court documents.

Just before his pretrial confinement, Caldwell slashed his wrists with a razor blade and was discovered by a gunnery sergeant, who wrapped Caldwell’s arms with socks until corpsmen arrived. The Marine Corps said Caldwell was sent to the local Navy hospital for treatment and psychiatric observation, then put in the brig to await trial.

In charging him for the failed suicide, the Marine Corps said his action was prejudicial to good order and discipline and brought discredit on the service. Despite his claims of mental health problems, a judge overseeing the court-martial did not order a mental health evaluation.

The case is the result of a UCMJ article crafted nearly three decades ago when the military was looking for a way to punish servicemembers who intentionally injured themselves and disrupted military operations — not those who legitimately attempted suicide, said Philip Cave, a military law attorney, former Navy judge advocate and board member of the National Institute of Military Justice.

“Back in the 1980s, there was an issue with people feigning suicide, and people thought, right or wrong, that this was a way to get out of deployment,” he said. But “there are people who have serious mental health issues and that leads them to contemplate and sometimes follow through with suicide.”

The two scenarios put commanders in a difficult situation — they allow servicemembers to disrupt a unit with potentially fake mental health problems or they charge them for a legitimate suicide attempt and appear not to care about mental health issues, Cave said.

If Caldwell’s mental health claims are true, his charges might be a tragic consequence of a law geared toward a different type of self-injury, Cave said.

But the case could also be the result of the souring relationship between Caldwell and his unit at Camp Schwab.

“There certainly are times when there is bad blood; it is not unusual for our clients to say, ‘They are picking on me,’” Cave said. “Sometimes they are picking on the person because [the person is] in fact creating problems.”

trittent@pstripes.osd.mil

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