Air Force Col. Eugene Marcus Caughey speaks at a ceremony at Schriever Air Force Base in 2014. Caughey, formerly vice commander of the 50th Space Wing, was found dead at his Colorado Springs home in September 2016.

Air Force Col. Eugene Marcus Caughey speaks at a ceremony at Schriever Air Force Base in 2014. Caughey, formerly vice commander of the 50th Space Wing, was found dead at his Colorado Springs home in September 2016. (Christopher DeWitt/U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force is investigating whether Col. Eugene Caughey, 46, formerly the vice commander of the 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base, died in the line of duty. Caughery shot himself three weeks before his court-martial on rape, sexual assault and adultery charges was scheduled to start in October.

The Army is investigating the same thing in the suicide of Master Sgt. Timothy Shelton. Shelton, 46, was convicted of sexual abuse of a child at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky on July 15, 2015. He shot himself with a gun retrived from his parked truck after a lunch break before he was to be sentenced.

The two cases go to the heart of a debate about the investigations that determine whether military suicides were of “unsound mind” when they killed themselves, and so in the line of duty, or of “sound mind.”

Those of sound mind who kill themselves commit misconduct, regulations state, and their families are denied retirement and other benefits, which for families of long-serving troops can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Psychiatrists, family groups and a recent RAND corporation study in improving the military’s post-suicide response say that no families of suicides should be made to forefeit benefits. They say that family members have also made sacrifices for the military, and that denying benefits adds another blow to their trauma.

Suicide is devastating, causing feelings of guilt, anger and shame in survivors, said retired Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a former top Army psychiatrist, and raises survivors’ risk for suicide.

Since a rise in military suicides focused attention on the issue a decade ago, the policy has been to find almost all suicide victims in the line of duty because of unsound mind, including cases in which troops are accused of serious crimes, experts said.

Even when investigating officers and legal advisers advise that a suicide was not in the line of duty, but was in fact misconduct, commanders frequently overrule them, according to Army lawyer Maj. Marcus Misinec, a critic of the policy.

Misenec highlighted two cases he was familiar with in a 2014 article in the Military law Review, those of a master sergeant and a captain. Both had shot themselves after evidence of sexual crimes had been exposed.

Neither man had a documented history of mental issues. Both communicated that either they couldn’t bear the idea of going to prison or live with what they’d done. Both had had a “motive for self-destruction,” Misinec wrote.

“They were not experiencing suicidal ideations while having adulterous sex with subordinates or sexually molesting a ten-year-old step-daughter,” he wrote. “Rather, it was when they were caught that they simply caved to immediate mental adversity caused by their own doing, acted impulsively, and killed themselves. Their apparent motive was to avoid the personal and criminal consequences of those shameful acts.”

In both cases, investigating officers and lawyers advised the suicides be ruled misconduct, and commanders disapproved the recommendations and determined the deceased was “in the line of duty.”

Misinec argued that finding such cases in the line of duty does a disservice to troops not accused of crimes, people who kill themselves because they suffer from post-combat syndromes such as PTSD, survivor guilt, traumatic brain injury or depression. He noted that the Army would have provided far less support if either had gone to prison and been stripped of pay and allowances.

Line of duty investigations are supposed to determine why a soldier committed suicide, “not to justify the potential expenditure of close to half a million government dollars over four decades when the soldier’s actions — not the Army’s — are responsible for his family’s plight,” he wrote.

Legal issues and relationship problems are considered prevalent risk factors for suicide. According to an Army report, from 2006 to 2009, seven of 18 field-grade officer suicides faced criminal legal issues.

“It’s often something that’s not just illegal but something that would get them shunned,” Ritchie said. “There’s depression that clouds their thoughts. They’re in a depressed, dark place and not thinking clearly.”

But most with those problems don’t kill themselves. Caughey was the only one of scores of military defendants he’s represented to commit suicide, including accused rapists and murderers, said attorney Ryan Coward. “People survive it, they get through it,” Coward said. “And there are acquittals at court-martial.”

Coward suggested that the Air Force had failed to provide Caughey with a “wingman” for support as required and said that suicide itself is evidence of a mental health problem.

It’s true that some suicides believe their families would be better off without them, Ritchie said. “But believe me, that’s not the case,” she said. “The trauma of suicide scars families for generations.”

Determining why someone commits suicide remains a complex puzzle that line of duty investigations can’t solve, she said.

Coughey, for example, who shot himself at home, his wife in the next room, was taking an anti-depressant and an anti-convulsant, according to autopsy records.

Shelton, a member of the 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment “Nightstalkers,” who was once lauded by German officials for helping avert a drowning, had recently returned from deployment in Afghanistan. He had been diagnosed with chronic PTSD, according to reports, and suffered from nightmares of helicopter crashes like the one that had killed a good friend and others he’d been tasked with investigating.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now