It is not surprising that many military troops return from lengthy overseas deployments with mental health challenges, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These mental illnesses are strongly linked to suicidal behavior and can predicate the transition from suicidal ideation to suicide attempts.
According to the University of Massachusetts Law Review released in 2014, Army soldiers serving at that time were more likely to die by suicide than from combat, accidents, or illness. A survey of 30,000 active duty service members found that a staggering 3 percent of Navy SEALs, 2.3 percent of Marines, and 2 percent of Army soldiers had attempted suicide at some point in their careers.
The rate of attempted suicides began trending upward in 2004, which correlates with a rise in PTSD diagnoses starting in 2003. More than one in five Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD—more than 300,000 service members in all.
This tide of suicide attempts has baffled military personnel because, in past decades, the military suicide rate has been significantly lower than the civilian rate. There has also been an increase in non-suicidal self-harm among service members, including self-cutting.
Even amidst this “suicide epidemic,” the military has continued to cling to cruel, archaic policies that criminalize self-injury and prosecute mentally ill soldiers for the “crime” of attempting suicide. This means thousands of service members who survive suicide attempts each year may face jail time and other punishments simply because they struggle with a mental disorder, which their military service may have brought on.
Have you been accused of self-harm while serving in the military? Find out more about the associated articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and how Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law can help defend your case.
Article 115: Malingering, Self-Inflicted Injury
Article 115 criminalizes the “intentional infliction of self-injury for the purpose of avoiding work, duty, or service.” The article also includes feigning illness, injury, or disability to get out of military responsibilities. In general, malingering is viewed as a tactic to extend life expectancy rather than shorten it, especially if a soldier inflicts injury to avoid entering combat. Even so, suicide survivors can still be prosecuted under Article 115 in certain circumstances.
Article 134: Self-Injury without Intent to Avoid Service
Article 134, known as the “general article,” criminalizes all actions that are “adverse to the good order and discipline in the Armed Forces” or that “bring discredit upon the Armed Forces.” Military courts continue to apply this extraordinarily broad and unusual catch-all to mentally injured service members. Indeed, the military is permitted to prosecute soldiers who “wrongfully and willfully attempt to commit suicide.”
The Civilian vs. Military Approach to Handling Self-Harm
The most recent criminally punished suicide attempt in any US civilian jurisdiction occurred 60 years ago. Even back in 1959, drafters of the Model Penal Code stated that criminalizing suicide attempts under penal law is an “intrusion” and “abuse” on such tragedies. “Preposterous” and “morally extravagant” are other phrases that subsequent drafters have used to describe their rejection of criminalizing self-harm.
The military is woefully behind civilian courts in this area, having adopted some unusual interpretations of its own regulations that continue to prejudice service members struggling with self-harm and suicide to this day. Ironically, following the initial UCMJ adoption in 1951, military courts were hesitant to punish suicidal service members. Military law had long viewed self-injury as a violation of the “general article.” Still, courts continually ruled that in order to justify criminal punishment, a service member’s self-harm had to impair their military duties.
However, these rulings didn’t hold. In 1968, the courts established that the accused’s mental state and purpose for inflicting self-harm were irrelevant in Article 134 prosecutions. As long as the self-injury affected the good order and discipline, the accused could be prosecuted, whether the purpose was wrongful or not. This opened the door to punishing mentally ill service members for attempted suicides.
Suicidal service members can even be prosecuted under Article 115 if the self-injury prevents the accused from being available to perform their assignments. For instance, if an individual ends up in the hospital, this is considered a “breach of obligation” and a “successful escape from the performance of military duties.”
Military Criminal Suicide Policy Thwarts Suicide Prevention Programs
With one foot, the military marches forward with suicide prevention programs and anti-stigma campaigns intended to improve mental health, reduce prejudice, and promote help-seeking. And with the other foot, the military marches backward, continuing to prosecute self-harm and suicide attempts.
The military’s criminal prosecutions have made many of its therapeutic efforts ineffective. It’s no surprise that messages of safety and positivity fall on deaf ears when the perpetual threat of criminal punishment remains.
A soldier injured in combat would be considered a war hero, but his PTSD-stricken comrade who confides in a psychiatrist about suicidal conduct would be treated like a self-incriminating offender. Yes, the psychiatrist’s subsequent questions would be essential for prescribing treatment, therapy, and rehabilitation, but many of the questions would be indistinguishable from a military police interrogator.
Health record privacy protections don’t apply to suicidal service members, which means admissions in a psychiatrist’s office could be shared with a commanding officer and end up being used as evidence in a court martial. The military could also skip the hassle of a trial and dishonorably discharge the suicidal service member, withdrawing much-needed access to medical and mental healthcare.
No wonder so many choose to suffer in silence.
Defend Yourself Against Accusations of Self-Harm
If you have been accused of injuring yourself or attempting to take your own life, Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law can vigorously defend your case. Mr. Jordan is an accomplished trial lawyer with previous experience as an Army JAG officer. His aggressive, uncompromising approach has led to a successful track record over his 14-year tenure as a military attorney. Mr. Jordan can fight for your rights no matter which branch of the Armed Forces you serve in or where in the world you are currently stationed.