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A Pentagon report finds that troops' suicides are often preceded by legal or administrative troubles

Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate Ryan Cuppernall leads SafeTALK suicide training in Norfolk, Va. on Aug. 9, 2023. SafeTALK is a three-hour course that trains sailors and civilians how to prevent suicide.
Jacqueline R. Ramos
U.S. Navy
Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate Ryan Cuppernall leads SafeTALK suicide training in Norfolk, Va. on Aug. 9, 2023. SafeTALK is a three-hour course that trains sailors and civilians how to prevent suicide.

About a quarter of all suicide deaths occur among troops caught up in legal or administrative battles - sometimes for minor infractions.

In 2021, Seaman Michael Gregg was stationed on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in Norfolk. He had been in and out of the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, after he was diagnosed with mental health issues and had thoughts of suicide.

“This kid had some serious mental health issues,” said family attorney Stephen Carpenter. “I had discussed the fact that it was not a case of malingering because there was actually diagnostic testing that was done by a physician.”

But Carpenter says the Navy threatened to charge Gregg with desertion while he was in treatment. It put him on 60 days restriction - forcing him to stay on the ship.

“You have to now serve out your restriction on the same boat that's causing you all this consternation and angst and all these bad feelings about harming yourself. Bottom line, it is just ridiculous,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter was able to intervene, reverse the 60 day restriction, and get Gregg eventually separated from the Navy. But he said he's had at least five other military clients who died by suicide over the 20 years he has been practicing in northern Virginia. All were involved in legal or administrative fights at the time.

“I think commanders are typically very concerned about one thing and one thing only, which is good order and discipline,” Carpenter said.

The Pentagon’s Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee found 23 percent of all suicides in the military in 2021 were people who had experienced legal or administrative challenges in the prior year. The number rose to 26 percent in the latest data released by the Department of Defense for 2022. It was more than double the risk of people with known financial stress.

Pat Caserta's son Brandon died by intentionally walking into the tail rotor of a helicopter in Norfolk in 2019. Brandon had been trying to transfer out of his unit when he was told he would face a disciplinary review board over a minor infraction.

“That was a huge contributor,” Pat Caserta said. “They feel like a failure. They're scared. Their goals are over. Their dreams are over. They're shattered. All that stuff goes into this.”

After Caserta’s death, a Navy investigation showed an abusive lead petty officer was transferred, instead of prosecuted, to get him out of the unit more quickly.

Caserta's parents successfully lobbied Congress to pass a law known as the "Brandon Act," which makes it easier for service members with mental health issues to ask for help, even when their command is reluctant. But the Casertas are pushing for more accountability for abusive commanders.

“You got to lay the law and show it won't be tolerated,” said Pat Caserta. “And these people need to go away."

Michael Waddington is a civilian attorney in Norfolk who specializes in military cases. He's also a former Army attorney and said he's had more than one client kill themselves.

“It usually happens when the person feels there's no hope,” Waddington said. “They get shunned from units. You come under investigation. One minute, you're like this superstar or just like a team player. You have some camaraderie. Next minute the allegation comes down. They flag you.”

He said a service members' professional life is on hold during an investigation, and they're often reassigned to less favorable duty. His clients often don’t trust the mental health staff who can be called to testify or report to the command.

“There are no actual mental health resources available for these people,” Waddington said. “An independent person, someone who's not part of the chain of command, psychological counseling, resources to help with people that are under court martial could go a long way.”

The Department of Defense created the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee, which reported in 2023 that attorneys throughout the military justice system reported their clients were often ostracized, isolating them from their potential support group.

The Air Force is the only service branch with a consistent mental health policy for troops caught up in the legal system, said Rajeev Ramchand, who worked on the Pentagon’s suicide prevention committee.

“The Air Force has strategies for commanders on how to better integrate people,” Ramchand said. “A checklist of when people are under investigation, how to reintegrate them into the unit, how to care for them, how to kind of accommodate them during this period of administration limbo.”

According to the report, the Air Force limits the number of people in an airman's unit who are aware of the investigation. The Limited Privilege Suicide Prevention program also increases the confidentiality of service members who seek mental help, so they may feel more confident that they can seek treatment. Treatment information is not supposed to be used in legal actions.

The Pentagon report recommends that each service adopt a similar policy for handling clients involved in the justice system.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 988.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

Military and Veterans Reporter, Norfolk, Virginia
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