December 13, 2008 – For the first time in the history of the IDF, a mental health officer will stand trial on charges of dereliction of duty in his handling of the case of a distressed soldier – who ultimately took his own life.
Military Advocate General, Brig. Gen. Avi Mendelblit, made the decision after the soldier’s commanders were already convicted of having failed to prevent the suicide. The incident in question occurred in August 2006, when the soldier, identified only as Cpl. A., a combat engineer in the Judea and Samaria Division, encountered personal difficulties.
The night before he ended his life the soldier was caught locked in his room, holding a loaded weapon. Following the incident the soldier’s personal firearm was confiscated and he was placed under the supervision of his commanders. The next day, just after 3:00 pm, Cpl. A. seized the weapon of an officer who stepped out of the room for a moment, and shot himself dead.
In an unprecedented move, two of the soldier’s commanders were charged with criminal offenses and eventually convicted of negligence. But despite this, Cpl. A.’s family demanded the mental health officer be held responsible as well. Through their attorneys, they appealed to Mendelblit and explained their case to him.
The two-hour gap
The family claimed that two hours before Cpl. A. committed suicide, his commander telephoned the mental health officer, who holds the rank of captain, to ask for help. However the psychiatrist replied that he was busy, and said he would only have time for Cpl. A.’s case after 5:00 pm. The parents asserted that the health officer rejected the commander’s suggestion that Cpl. A. be immediately sent over to the base where the psychiatrist was situated.
The family further claims that the health officer did not give the commander any specific instructions or get to the bottom of the case in question – thereby failing to realize his responsibility as the professional element overseeing the case.
During the preliminary hearings conducted by the military advocacy, the head of the army’s mental health department, Col. Dr. Gadi Lubin, was apprehensive about the possibility of putting his subordinate on trial.
Lubin said he feared that doing so would prevent mental health officers from carrying out their duties in the future.
Lubin’s predecessor, Col. (res) Dr. Haim Knobler, called the decision to charge the mental health officer “idiotic.”
Knobler said the move would lead the excellent professionals in the department to start questioning their every decision. The repercussions, he said, could lead mental health officers to needlessly excuse soldiers from military service.
“There has recently been a sharp decline in the number of suicides in the IDF, and a key part of that is thanks to the work of health officers, who do extraordinary work. Even if in this case there was a mistake, it would be wrong to take legal action, rather it should be studied for the future. This decision is shameful and outrageous.”
Shlomi Tzipori, one of the attorneys representing Cpl. A.’s family, said he was satisfied with Mendelblit’s decision, but lamented the fact the officer was only standing disciplinary trial and not a court martial.
“When you want to conduct a war that will lead to a decrease in the number of suicides, there is no escaping the need to set standards of professional behavior even for the doctors in the IDF’s mental health department. In this case the doctor allegedly failed in administering preventative treatment – there is no escaping that he must face the full extent of the law.”