(DoD photo)

Legion: Re-examine suicide attempt policies

"Compassion instead of courts" is the approach needed to stem the alarming rate of suicide among U.S. troops, according to American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz.

"If you succeed at committing suicide, you are often treated as a hero by grieving friends and family," Koutz said. "But if you fail at suicide, you could be treated to a court-martial. This must change."

Koutz praised the progress the military has made in recent years to de-stigmatize those who seek treatment for suicidal thoughts but added that the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) still allows for the prosecution of those who make unsuccessful attempts.

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces heard the appeal of Marine Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell, who was convicted of "self-injury" after he slit his wrist in a barracks in Okinawa in 2010. He was convicted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s Article 134, when the judge in the case found Caldwell’s self-inflicted injury was prejudicial to good order and discipline and brought discredit to the service.

"This sends a mixed message," Koutz said. "On the one hand, we are grateful for their service. We want to compensate you for your post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. But if you engage in a behavior that is often seen as a symptom of those injuries, we will punish you."

Suicides accounted for 20 percent of U.S. military deaths last year.

"More servicemembers are dying by their own hand than are killed by our enemies on the battlefield," Koutz said. "This is becoming a huge problem, and every one of these suicides is a national tragedy. I am not faulting the military for this at all. It is up to Congress and the president to make the changes necessary to the UCMJ to de-criminalize this behavior and stop overzealous prosecutions. These servicemembers need a helping hand, not a slap down."

Koutz pointed out that The American Legion has instituted a national committee on TBI/PTSD and would be happy to share its findings with lawmakers and the Department of Defense to try to lower the suicide rate.


  1. During the previous World Wars and Viet Nam our country had a heightened awareness of the involvement of our military personnel. This awareness and suport has been shuffled off to the back table in today's society. Today's longterm chronic actions abroad in regions totally foreighn to our culture are easily divorced from thought by mainstream America in liieu of preoccupation with the economy and other "important" issues. The multiple deployments in close proximity in time, without a clear purpose and unclear visible support back home or even "awareness" by our citizens has eroded the morale of many of our combat veterans whose persoanl lives have been totally uprooted. We as a country and especially our "Commander in Chief" need to acknowledge the problem in a meaningful way and provide support for those soldiers whose lives have been disrupted at so many levels and shattered at the deepest psychological level in particular. This situation isn't "business as usual". Self-injury and suicide are becoming an "epidemic" in our military and recent talk of budgetary cuts etc. isn't helpful either. These affected men and women are owed our respect, our support, and our assistance in trying to make them whole again. This issue has no place in the judicial system of the military; it is an issue for therapists and the helping professions.
  2. Suicide is an illness associated with a soldiers experiences and/or injuries. It's time for the President and COMMANDER IN CHIEF to PUBLICALLY address this problem and PARDON those who have been convicted for their suicide attempt.
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