Study: Survivors of servicemembers who commit suicide should get full benefits
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 2, 2016
Col. Wickliffe Cooper was by all accounts a bold and daring soldier, honored for gallantry at Shiloh, Corinth, Richmond and Chickamauga. He was also a renowned drunk.
After he ran out of whiskey at a Nebraska encampment in 1867, he shot himself in the head “in a fit of delirium tremens,” widowing his pregnant wife.
Suicide was then was viewed as tantamount to a crime. Widows and orphans were denied benefits. For 18 years, despite petitions to Congress, Sarah Cooper was denied her husband’s pension, until the War Department changed the colonel’s official cause of death to “by hand of person or persons unknown, while in the line of his duty as an officer of the army.”
Suicide, now seen as a tragedy usually resulting from mental illness or despair, no longer automatically prevents families from receiving all benefits. In fact, the military’s usual $400,000 life insurance policy, unlike most civilian life insurance, makes no exception for suicide and pays the benefit regardless of cause of death. But some — by those of “sound mind” — are still determined to be misconduct, not “in the line of duty.”
The consequence is denial to surviving family members of significant benefits, including a survivor benefit retirement payout to spouses of a lifetime annuity that can total hundreds of thousands of dollars, along with a monthly tax-free stipend from the Veterans Affairs Department.
The determination is made by a line-of-duty investigation involving medical health records, psychiatric opinions, investigating officers and legal advisers. A commander, one authorized to convene a general court-martial, ultimately decides.
Line-of-duty determinations are “essential for protecting the interest of both the individual concerned and the U.S. government where service is disrupted by injury, disease or death,” Army spokeswoman Tatjana Christian said in an email.
But the system has been criticized as arbitrary, being both too tough and too soft.
Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a former psychiatry consultant for Office of the Surgeon General of the Army, said that during her four years as a top Army psychiatrist, she overruled at least a dozen opinions that a suicide was misconduct. Guidelines lacked a clear definition of what is meant by “sound” or “unsound” mind,” Ritchie said, and post-mortem opinions about a suicide’s mental state and motive are questionable. “You don’t know (why); you weren’t there,” she said.
“We tried to change it,” she said. “It just seemed crazy to deny a family benefits.”
Last year, a study by the Rand National Defense Research Institute agreed. One of the study’s recommendations aimed at improving response to survivors of military suicides was to stop denying benefits based on line-of-duty investigations.
“The issue for us was once you decide to give benefits to people who experience a loss, why make some families ineligible?” said Rajeev Ramchand, the study’s lead author.
More than 90 percent of the 1,107 active-duty Army suicides between 2005 and 2012 were determined to be in the line of duty, according to Maj. Marcus Misinec, an Army lawyer writing in the Military Law Review.
According to Misinec, that’s too many. Commanders, he says in his article, are ignoring misconduct by soldiers who commit suicide, in part because of family welfare considerations. “Though understandable from an emotional standpoint,” he wrote, the approach conflicts with “the integrity, intent, and purpose of laws, regulations, and investigations.”
Line-of-duty investigations have been mandated since 1966 for self-inflicted death or injury. Until 1980, the legal presumption was that “every person is sane and intends the natural and probable consequences of his acts” and that suicide was not in the line of duty.
The sanity presumptions began to change in 1980, due “to a cultural shift that placed more importance on the ‘welfare of the family,’” Mineck wrote.
According to current regulations, suicide is itself evidence of insanity, and substantial contrary evidence must be shown to overcome that and find misconduct.
Behavioral health experts look first for evidence of mental unsoundness, such as psychiatric diagnoses. If there is no medical record, they rely on associates’ observations of psychological disturbance, according to the Army Medical Command.
If they can find no such evidence, then “they look for evidence that there was nothing wrong with the soldier,” the command said in an email. At that point, “the event may be attributed to poor judgment or misconduct, both without suicidal intent.”
Asked how a suicide could be effected without suicidal intent, the command said a fatal game of Russian roulette would qualify. “It is still classified as suicide, as it was death at one’s own hands; however, it is attributed to poor judgment or misconduct and not to suicidal intent.”
Troops who survive a suicide attempt may also be judged to have committed misconduct, or worse — suicide attempts are still criminally punishable in the military.
After a Marine in Okinawa, Japan, slashed his wrists in 2010, for example, he was convicted at court-martial of harming good order and discipline. His crimes consisted of exposing a gunnery sergeant to his blood, expending corpsmen’s medical supplies, and delaying an ordered trip to the brig by needing to be hospitalized.