Second Suicide Battalion: Where Military Justice Weaponizes Mental Health
Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a multipart series. Read part one, part three, and part four.
On a Friday night at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on the anniversary of his stepsister taking her own life, Lance Cpl. Kameron Duval got drunk. He hallucinated as he walked across Gonzalez Boulevard and began to wade into the New River.
Duval planned to kill himself with the knife he carried and to let his body float downstream, he told The War Horse during a phone interview.
When a Marine staff sergeant was alerted to the Marine in distress, he searched the area and found Duval walking toward the embankment. He ordered Marines walking nearby to watch the sick Marine until military police and paramedics arrived, according to a Marine attorney familiar with the case.
He told the Marines not to approach Duval because of his unstable condition, the attorney said.
But as the staff sergeant stepped away to make the call, one of the subordinate Marines waded out into the water and another sneaked up behind Duval. As the Marine attempted to subdue and grab Duval, the knife in Duval’s hand cut the Marine. The attorney said the injured Marine required stitches and was swiftly discharged from the emergency room.
Duval required inpatient care. When he was released, the Marines gave him the clothing he had worn into the river the night of his suicide attempt. Putting them on felt exhausting, he said.
“I didn’t want to deal with the psych issues anymore, and I’d asked for help so many times that it was just like, putting these things back on, I’m just going back to get denied again,” Duval told The War Horse during a phone interview. His unit was widely referred to as “Second Suicide Battalion” among his peers, he said.
“I felt like I was going back to no help again.”
Then the Marines drove Duval to military police headquarters.
Once inside, the military police investigator interrogated Duval without an attorney for six hours. The Marine apologized to the investigator for the stench that clung to his clothing.
“I didn’t feel like I would need [an attorney] because I didn’t really know what had happened,” Duval said, adding that, at the time, he trusted the system.
“Now, not so much,” he said. “Not at all, really.”
The Marine Corps accused him of aggravated assault and charged him with a felony at a general court martial.
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From the moment the Marine was arrested—and throughout the eight months he was imprisoned before his trial in February—mental health professionals for both the prosecution and defense agreed that Duval had severe post-traumatic stress disorder, Duval and a Marine attorney familiar with the case said.
But the Marine Corps didn’t drop the charges.
“I was told that I was faking illness—basically saying I was malingering,” Duval said. “It was like they were just using excuses to make me out to be just some monster that was constantly causing problems and I was just using a mental health crisis to get out of trouble.”
In fact, weeks before that summer evening, Duval enrolled himself in mental health treatment, and a Navy doctor had diagnosed him with adjustment disorder. The Corps had begun to process him out with an administrative separation, Duval said.
But Duval said his therapy sessions were not helpful, and he came away from them with the sense that the military had little interest in his continued mental health, given that he would soon be leaving it.
After his arrest, the Marine Corps assigned another doctor to treat him. The Marine Corps tried to have that doctor testify against him, Duval said.
Like many other Marines, he was punished for behavior connected to a mental health diagnosis—even after he sought help and didn’t receive it. And, like for many others, the punishment could not only cause more damage, but prevent him from getting help in the future. Making the situation all the worse, Marines in similar situations often have no recourse, no legal ability to appeal their cases.
“I still have my Marine Corps sticker on my car,” said one Marine whose career ended because of a suicide attempt. “I had a good career, regardless of the outcome. There were still so many good times and so much good that we do and what we stand for. The Marine Corps just broke my heart.”
During this investigation, The War Horse spoke with more than two dozen active and retired attorneys, judge advocates, former public affairs officers, junior and senior enlisted service members, and legal experts from three separate branches and the private sector who said they support a restructuring of, as well as growth of, the military legal system so it better serves the force.
The commandant and sergeant major of the Marine Corps, staff judge advocate to the commandant, chief defense counsel of the Marine Corps, and two of the Corps’ most senior spokespeople each declined to comment or did not respond to multiple requests to discuss the issues impacting the military criminal justice system.
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The cases sound like what one would find in a dictatorship—not like the ethos followed by the few and the proud, a Marine defense attorney said. One Marine, after being hospitalized after she tried to kill herself, was nearly interrogated by her command while in the hospital and then received a bad performance review for her behavior while under duress.
Another Marine, diagnosed with suicidal ideation, says she was left in a filthy prison cell without psychiatric help even after military doctors had recommended she be medically retired.
And even as Duval fought punishment for a psychiatric break, 94% of 438 Marines in his battalion reported a hostile work environment in a survey. They offered 125 negative comments specifically about his battalion commander.
She kept her job.
“They Don’t Even Realize What They Do Is Inappropriate.”
Maj. Anna Rubio-Fleischer was working as a company commander at Marine Corps Detachment Fort Leonard Wood when she decided to kill herself. She closed the door of her office, chugged an entire fifth of vodka and a bottle of muscle relaxers, and cried herself to sleep, hoping she would never wake up.
When a colleague discovered Rubio-Fleischer, she was barely responsive. Medics rushed her to the hospital where her stomach was pumped. When she came to, she told medical providers she had tried to kill herself. They committed her to an inpatient mental health ward, both Rubio-Fleischer and her attorney explained to The War Horse during a series of interviews.
While she was in the hospital, Rubio-Fleischer told doctors she had faced multiple assaults throughout her 14-year career in the Corps:
The time she says an officer threw her over a desk and her leaders said she should “watch the tone of her voice.”
The time she says she was sexually assaulted by a fellow Marine.
And the times she says her leadership abandoned her when she needed them most.
During her hospitalization, the judge advocate overseeing the line of duty investigation into Rubio-Fleischer’s suicide attempt, Lt. Col. Alan Schuller, tried to have Rubio-Fleischer questioned at least once. Hospital staff denied the interrogation, citing patient privacy laws, according to Rubio-Fleischer and a Marine attorney involved in the investigation. The attorney is a reservist in the military who represented Rubio-Fleischer pro bono but fears retaliation if they spoke on the record.
Instead of showing empathy and caring for a Marine in distress, the Corps’ leaders seized the opportunity to destroy Rubio-Fleischer through overwhelming force, just as they would an enemy combatant, she said.
“She was not mentally capable of answering investigatory inquiries,” said a Marine attorney involved in the case. “They don’t even realize what they do is inappropriate.”
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A few weeks later, doctors released Rubio-Fleischer from the hospital with light-duty orders that would have restricted her access to firearms if she had any at the time and lowered the number of hours she was required to work each day. She was also required to stay sober and attend weekly therapy sessions, she said.
Instead, her leaders made her resume her full duties, she said.
“Thirty days doesn’t fix you, you know,” she said during a phone interview.
Days after her release from the inpatient facility, Rubio-Fleischer tried to kill herself a second time by chugging a fifth of liquor after she was denied a vacation. When she was again found unresponsive, she was rushed to the hospital and sent back to an inpatient facility.
Upon her discharge from the hospital, Rubio-Fleischer’s leaders began to transfer her to the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in southern California. Like every transfer to a new command, Rubio was given a routine performance evaluation. It was marked as adverse by her leaders, according to documents.
“I was just willing to leave the Corps with nothing because the Marines were not there to get me help,” Rubio-Fleischer said during a phone interview. “Apparently, officers are supposed to be superhuman, and we’re not. We’re just as fucked up as the rest of you. We just hide it better.”
In the performance evaluation, Marine leaders wrote that she was “derelict in her duties as a leader,” Rubio-Fleischer said. Her lawyer said her occasional absences from work were to take her special needs child to medical appointments—absences she always had permission for, Rubio-Fleischer said. The adverse nature of the fitness report could jeopardize Rubio-Fleischer’s future federal employment opportunities, her lawyer said.
“It demonstrates their intent,” said the Marine attorney involved in the investigation. “They weren’t going to let her leave without something bad happening. They couldn’t get her on administrative separation, they couldn’t get her criminally, so they got her the only way they could get her.”
The separation goes beyond the needs of the Marine Corps and ignores the needs of the Marine, the attorney said.
“This is what they wanted,” the Marine attorney said. “They wanted her to be found derelict in duty. They wanted her to be found to be an inadequate leader. They wanted something to hang their hat on, and they couldn’t get it any other way, so it just showed me their true colors.”
The Mental Health of Vulnerable Service Members Is Weaponized
But there are other ways to tear down Marines in crisis.
Even if the preliminary hearing officer makes a recommendation to dismiss a case during an Article 32 hearing—the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing—their opinions are not binding, and the chain of command can punish the accused with career-ending consequences.
In other words, a service member’s boss can override the decision of the officer overseeing the hearing.
An exposé published by The War Horse in 2020 explored the case of Marine veteran Cpl. Thae Ohu, who was threatened with a gag order after she spoke up about a failed investigation into her sexual assault allegations and the mistreatment of her long-standing mental illness.
While in uniform, every time Ohu turned for help, her leaders ignored her until she was ultimately charged with attempted murder.
After multiple admissions to the hospital, diagnoses of several mental health issues, and a recommendation from Navy doctors that she be medically retired, one bad day turned Ohu’s health care case into a court case. After a breakup with her then-live-in boyfriend following a psychiatric episode, she attacked the bedroom door with a knife as he stood behind the closed and locked door. But even as her former boyfriend fought to get her care because he said he realized the attack came as part of a mental health crisis, the Marine Corps charged her with attempted murder.
Following a series of court-martial hearings—where a Christmas decoration with the name of the man who allegedly raped Ohu years earlier hung beside the courtroom—the judge presented her commanding general with a range of options including a punitive discharge, an administrative separation, or to allow her to be medically retired.
Military leaders approved a bad conduct discharge, stripping her of her access to a Veterans Affairs home loan, education benefits, and mental health care to manage her service-connected disabilities.
But the effects of her court-martial and her months of being denied mental health care, as well as the conditions of her imprisonment, had a lasting impact. She now worries she’ll never be able to forgive the leaders who discarded her and that healing from the traumas inflicted on her during her service will be a lifelong journey, she said.
During her confinement in the “anti-suicide cell” at a confinement facility in Chesapeake, Virginia, she was denied her Bible, not given enough menstrual pads, and was limited to wearing a green nylon tunic—dubbed an “anti-suicide smock,” Ohu said. She was forced to sleep on the floor with only a thin blue mat.
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When she needed to use the bathroom, she did so into a small hole in the floor covered with a metal grate, Ohu said.
When she defecated, she was forced to press her feces through the holes with her fingertips, Ohu said. Guards didn’t provide enough toilet paper to clean the mess. Guards also didn’t allow her to properly clean her hands before being forced to eat with them. A Marine attorney familiar with the case verified Ohu’s description.
“I’m, like, really disgusted by myself,” Ohu said during a phone interview, adding that she ate “finger food” with her palms, the tops of her hands, or a cup to avoid the bacteria.
Throughout her time in the anti-suicide cell, she constantly thought about killing herself as she smelled the waste inside the concrete hole, she said.
With the tips of her fingernails, she slowly pulled and tugged on the nylon threads of her anti-suicide smock until they broke loose. She then held the strings taut between her fingers and sawed into her legs.
Over and over.
She used the strings from the smock to carve into her skin dozens of times, she said. But even after she left the anti-suicide cell covered in cuts, Ohu continued to be denied mental health treatment. Defense attorneys familiar with the case confirmed the injuries.
“I was treated like an animal,” Ohu said of her time in confinement. “I’m still fucked up from it.”
As Ohu awaits the final decision on her case, she often reflects on how her command failed to investigate her sexual assault complaint. Unless the criminal justice system is removed entirely from the chain of command, abuse and manipulation will continue to persist, she said.
“When you go online and when you’ve served with men and women who have been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed, you know there’s a piece of them that’s just gone and it never leaves,” Ohu said. “It’s a part of them.”
Ohu’s attorney Eric Montalvo, veteran judge advocate, agrees.
“Marines don’t leave anyone behind,” Montalvo reiterated to The War Horse. “The Corps is doing just that in cases involving mental health and sexual assault. We know how to do better and we should.”
Lt. Col. Schuller and the commander overseeing the cases of Rubio and Ohu, Maj. Gen. Julian D. Alford, declined multiple interview requests through public affairs.
“Fast and Loose” With Doctor-Patient Confidentiality
After Duval left the hospital after he tried to kill himself in the New River, his command took him to the brig, where he would be imprisoned for the next 240 days. Despite a new diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder for pre-service traumas, he did not receive any therapy sessions for six months.
As detailed in part one of this series, the rampant disregard for the rights of the accused during trials is not just commonplace, it is deeply entrenched in the culture of the Marine Corps justice system.
During the trial in February, an expert testified that Duval had been experiencing a psychiatric episode when he was grabbed from behind in the New River, and so he was not responsible for his actions. The psychiatrist for the prosecution agreed that the Marine was experiencing a psychiatric episode but testified that he could still be responsible for his actions, an attorney familiar with the case said.
In December, the judge overseeing Duval’s case, recognized the defendant’s need for intense mental health treatment and ordered Duval to be seen at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, where his treating psychiatrist, Lt. Cmdr. Joshua McDevitt, the brig psychiatrist, also served as the director of mental health programs, according to officials.
McDevitt treated Duval when he was initially placed in pretrial confinement and oversaw the mental health professionals who treated him during his court-martial.
But once Duval began treatment, the prosecutors took the unprecedented step of interviewing Dr. McDevitt so he could serve as a witness against his patient, a Marine attorney said. In court, Duval said the doctor’s participation violated psychotherapist-patient privilege when he shared health care information without the express permission of his client.
Officials at Camp Lejeune declined to comment on the particular case; however, 1st Lt. Ace Padilla explained that, in general, “Rules in place ensure that doctors do not violate doctor-patient privilege though. Evidentiary rules are separate and distinct from HIPAA.”
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Health care providers in the military are often exempted from HIPAA law to inform commanders of why a service member may be unfit for military service. However, that information is still protected under the Privacy Act of 1974 from being released by commanders to other members of a service member’s unit.
But unlike civilians, service members cannot sue a health care institution for HIPAA violations or the military for wrongdoing.
In the case where the sick Marine was dragged from the river, three active-duty and veteran judge advocates—as well as Duval himself—questioned why the prosecution took the step of adding the defendant’s treating psychiatrist to their witness list in addition to the court-ordered psychiatrist who conducted the mental health evaluation required during a court-martial.
Duval wrote a letter to the judge, which he shared with The War Horse.
“When I learned Doc McDevitt would be testifying against me and talked to the prosecutors, I felt betrayed,” the Marine wrote. He hadn’t waived his right to confidentiality during mental health treatment, he wrote.
“I feel like I cannot trust anybody.”
During an interview, an attorney in the Marine Reserves who spoke in an unofficial capacity told The War Horse the prosecutors’ concerning actions in interviewing and trying to call the psychiatrist as a witness are a likely side effect of the military being “fast and loose with doctor confidentiality.”
“[This] speaks to a culture of being used to routinely speaking to others about patient information,” she said.
Two Marines familiar with the case told The War Horse they agreed.
“The Current System Is Concerning”
On Feb. 7, the judge presiding over the New River Marine’s case denied the prosecutors’ request for the treating psychiatrist to testify during a closed session, according to the Marine familiar with the case.
Like others interviewed about Duval’s case, including a Marine involved with the trial, the attorney involved in the investigation of Rubio-Fleischer said that if ever there is a case to test the boundaries of doctor-patient privilege, the Duval case is not it.
“If this is truly to rebut his mental state at the time, they should have just gotten another independent expert, not someone who appears to have a privileged relationship,” she said.
But prosecutors already had such an expert, said Marines familiar with the case.
These cases aren’t bad just for the Marines involved: They affect everyone in the ranks or who will serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
“Perceptions about fairness in the system affect the views of influencers—parents, coaches, counselors—and that can affect recruiting and retention,” said Rob Bracknell, the legal adviser to an international organization. “These influencers want to know the kids are going to be well taken care of in the service.”
It’s not just the people influencing new recruits that the Marine Corps should be worried about, he said.
“I think if you polled service members, most would say they don’t trust the system,” Bracknell said.
And it affects those charged with maintaining justice, too.
“The constant demands for updates and reports on high-profile cases are designed to ensure the prosecutors and judge advocates know that Headquarters Marine Corps is watching and evaluating,” he said.
One of the defense attorneys in the ongoing MARSOC 3 homicide trial, Colby Vokey, backed Bracknell’s concerns during a phone interview.
“We’re moving backward with fewer and fewer rights for the accused,” Vokey said. “The current system is concerning.”
Kevin McDermott, a Marine defense attorney turned whistleblower who first spoke out about abuses of power in the military criminal justice system 40 years ago, agreed.
“The public should be outraged that their child could choose to serve our country but if they are accused of a crime, because the military believes the accused don’t matter, they will just be thrown to the wayside,” McDermott said.
On Feb. 11, a jury panel found Duval guilty of one specification of assault consummated by a battery. The sentence carries a maximum sentence of 180 days and the potential for a bad conduct discharge. The judge did not sentence him to a punitive discharge.
Instead, Duval was released from the brig that day. He was discharged from the Marine Corps with a general discharge on April 1.
Now a Marine veteran, he reflected on how mental health and suicide was treated in his unit and by the military justice system.
“It’s pretty horrific to look at it—and to witness it, it’s pretty bad too,” Duval said. “It felt like if you asked for help, you got pushed to the wayside. You are no longer useful.”
The prosecutors and psychiatrist involved in Duval’s case each declined to comment through public affairs.
The “Monday Morning Quarterback”
As Duval was locked in a cell and denied access to mental health treatment following his suicide attempt, his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Christina R. Henry, was being investigated for allegedly fostering a toxic command climate, including claims that she made a junior enlisted Marine remove their rank so she could use it to promote her child’s service dog.
During the course of this investigation, a 175-page internal report was provided to The War Horse. The internal report was largely redacted, but Henry’s name appears multiple times, and it includes dates she was assigned to her unit. Additionally, two Marines familiar with the investigation verified the authenticity of the documents and confirmed that Henry was the focus of the investigation and report.
The report reveals there have been several whistleblower complaints, as well as the recommendations of investigators, about Henry that were downplayed by the Corps’ most senior military officers.
It also shows that the most senior Marines in the unit—dubbed “The Big 5”—sided with the Marine who signed their performance reviews instead of the Marines they led.
“Specifically, when I interviewed members of what was known as the ‘Big 5,’ it was clear to me there was a level of protection and loyalty toward [Henry] among this group which was not shared by other witnesses I interviewed,” an investigator wrote.
In total, the report includes more than 1,600 “facts and findings” and relies on interviews with Marines from across Henry’s unit who ranged from junior officers to the most senior enlisted Marines.
“There was no reason to doubt the credibility of any of the witnesses,” the investigator wrote.
In the report, the investigator identified that Henry fostered a toxic command climate where commanders are given no autonomy. She publicly “degrades, ridicules, and belittles officers” in front of their enlisted Marines, the report states. She punished the officer with the worst performance in her unit by forcing that person to carry a stuffed animal known as the “loser’s trophy.”
An investigator said Henry’s Marines feared retribution and that her deceptiveness and “lack of truthfulness diminished her credibility.” She made at least 11 false official statements, the report states.
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The investigator also revealed that Henry unlawfully influenced commanders by forcing them to punish Marines, which “effectively removed the ability of her commanders to use their good judgment.” This constituted unlawful command influence. And when a Marine attempted to request mast—a process to appeal a commander’s decision—they faced retaliation.
Each of those behaviors are punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“Derelict in Her Duties”
According to the report, Henry, a former aide to the secretary of the Navy, not only unjustly relieved a major, but criticized his language barrier in performance reviews. The report criticized Henry for failing to effectively communicate her policies and guidance, and described her as “derelict in her duties” for the way she “conducts counselings [sic] and maintains the records.”
“[Henry’s] inability to take responsibility for any of her actions, or for her command, is quite unbelievable to me,” the investigator wrote. Of the 438 Marines who participated in a survey detailed in the report, 94% reported a hostile work environment.
The report includes more than 125 negative comments that appear to be specifically directed at Lt. Col. Henry. The report contains four positive comments about the commander.
While members of the “Big 5” told the investigator that Henry was willing to hear dissenting opinions, the investigator found that four of the 17 company commanders agreed. Of the eight enlisted leaders interviewed, one said Henry was open to differing opinions.
Marines interviewed by investigators also pointed toward failed training events where “there is no planning or purpose other than going to the field.” Henry’s “risk-aversion” jeopardized Marine lives during cold weather training in Bridgeport, California, they said.
During a blizzard, Marines were stranded with no food and water. The infantry battalion “needed a resupply to survive,” and 2nd Maintenance Battalion—referred to as “Maintenance Second Battalion” by Marines in the report—was tasked with the job. They were ordered not to go because they “did not have adequate training in the weather,” even though they had trained for a week and had been driving in similar conditions for a month. The decision was described as “unethical” by a Marine interviewed by investigators.
In the end, a Marine from the infantry unit brought supplies to the Marines.
“Again, [she] has no problem letting all of her Marines around her take the blame,” they said.
Henry told investigators that she had not failed in her mission—adding that if she had, the commanding general would have known about it.
“Trouble always seemed to disappear,” Duval said, adding that junior Marines who told him about the incident felt like they were kept in the dark.
“It seems like it was being covered up,” Duval said. “A lot of things seemed like that with her, it seemed like. She was in a lot of trouble herself, but it seemed to always disappear.”
One Marine said “he would never go to war with her if he had the option,” and another comment reflects that the Marine “would not follow her into battle based on her leadership style.” Other Marines, including Duval, agreed.
“I would honestly say it would be hard to come by somebody that would say something positive,” said Duval, who was unaware of the command investigation, during a phone interview.
“No Further Investigation Is Warranted”
But this was not the first time Marines had filed complaints against Henry that were investigated by the Corps.
An investigation of previous allegations of toxic command climate were originally determined to be unfounded. But the most recent investigation found that a “preponderance of the evidence suggested there was a toxic command climate,” they wrote.
The initial inspector general report was signed by a Marine named Brig. Gen. Forrest Poole III on June 7, 2021.
In the end, an investigator recommended that Henry be fired from her position leading her unit and should face punitive and administrative actions under the UCMJ.
But on Feb. 4, Lt. Gen. William M. Jurney, the commanding general overseeing Henry’s unit and the investigation—as well as a contender to become the next commandant of the Marine Corps, according to a senior Marine attorney—did not follow the investigator’s recommendations.
Instead, Jurney wrote in his endorsement letter that he would administratively counsel Henry “to correct and improve her leadership, judgment, and communication deficiencies.”
Both Poole and Jurney declined to comment through Marine Corps public affairs.
Henry did not respond to three interview requests.
“We will not be able to support your request to interview Lt. Col. Christina Henry,” wrote 1st Lt. Kevin Stapleton in an email response.
Henry remains in command of her Marines.
When asked what the Corps inaction will cost, Duval’s answer was direct.
“I would say the Marine Corps’ inaction has caused a lot of people to lose a lot of trust in the Marine Corps,” he said. “You’re putting terrible leaders in charge and allowing them to stay there, and you expect good people to stay around and they’re not going to.
“It’s going to get people killed,” the Marine said. “It’s gonna get people hurt for no good reason.”
This War Horse investigation was reported by Thomas J. Brennan, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines. Five senior military attorneys volunteered their time to review this story for accuracy. All interviews were recorded and all sources included in the reporting verified the accuracy of The War Horse’s reporting during a secondary interview process. Prepublication review was completed by BakerHostetler.