CAMP LEJEUNE, NC – "Marines are not allowed to die without permission!" R. Lee Ermey's character famously tells a group of recruits in the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. Now, twenty-six years later, the Marine Corps is putting those words into practice.
In what is being described as the toughest new anti-suicide policy in the U.S. military, the Marine Corps has announced that Marines who commit suicide will now automatically receive formal non-judicial punishment and possible administrative separation from the Marine Corps.
Any Marine who commits suicide will be charged following August 1, the drop dead date for commands to implement the new zero-tolerance policy.
"If you kill yourself from now on, it won't just be a warning or a negative counseling, but an Article 134 per the Uniform Code of Military Justice," said Sergeant Mark Davis, a spokesMarine at Camp Lejeune. "And if that doesn't work, we may have to move to an automatic administrative separation, based on a refusal to train, come to work, or breathe."
The Marines hope the program will slash suicides in half by the end of the year.
Under current policy, a Marine who attempts suicide can be charged with disrupting order and discrediting the Marine Corps; if on deployment, they are also automatically removed from the rolls of the fallen and any unit memorials. However, some commanders feel that policy does not go far enough.
"For years, we've told Marines about the automatic loss of Serviceman's Group Life Insurance Benefits, as well as forfeiture of leave and liberty privileges," said Sergeant Davis. "But we have yet to see a noticeable drop in suicides as a result."
Some Marines have blamed the suicide problem on recent attempts by the Marine Corps to remove the stigma of the act, an approach which they say has repeatedly failed. In a complete reversal, the new program will also attempt to increase that stigma as much as possible.
"Why should I have to attend a suicide prevention brief, when I'm obviously alive?" asked Lance Corporal Tim White, an artilleryman with 1st Battalion 10th Marines. "If the Marine Corps really wants an effective program, it has to be aimed at Marines who have already killed themselves."
Sergeant Davis said he understood the reaction.
"Up until now, Marines who didn't kill themselves had to deal with all the fallout from Marines who did," he explained. "Well the good news is that's going to change: we're talking loss of rank, clearance, pay and benefits, you name it. And they can forget about going on [Marine Security Guard] or Recruiting duty, because every B-Billet requires you to be alive when you check in."
Despite the outcry by some groups over the new punishments, Marine officials say they hope the harsh punishment will actually help despondent Marines by showing them that suicide will create more problems for them in the long run.
"Actions have consequences, especially suicide," said Maj. Pedro Martinez, a member of the Marine Corps' Suicide Prevention team. "Marines need to understand that killing themselves won't just affect them now, but can affect their career years down the road. And no matter how you kill yourself, your chain of command will still be able to recall you for punishment, via seance or Ouija board."
Maj. Martinez also insisted that the approach shows the Corps isn't turning a blind eye to the problem.
"For too long we've underestimated the problem of suicide. Despite repeated surveys and focus groups, we have yet to find any Marines who will publicly admit that they've committed suicide. And it became easy to say 'this is an Army problem or a Navy problem' until we woke up to find it hanging right in front of us."
"This program is our last, best shot," he added.