Avoidable deathsTwo soldiers from the Army’s 28th Infantry Division, former home of the 23-year-old private who was fatally beaten by superiors in April, killed themselves together on Monday while on leave in Seoul. The suicide of soldiers outside a military compound is an extremely rare case. The two corporals, who served in the same company, turned out to be “soldiers requiring special attention.” The older Cpl. Lee, who was 23, was classified as a soldier in need of B-grade attention. His younger friend and colleague, 21-year-old Cpl. Lee, needed A-grade attention, the most urgent level. Both underwent psychiatric treatment several times after enlisting in the Army. The younger man reportedly tried to desert from the Army.
An even bigger problem is the way the military has responded to the case. Even though the suicides could have been predicted from the corporals’ psychiatric evaluations, the division didn’t pay attention to them. Moreover, the younger man told junior soldiers in June about his plan to commit suicide together with the other corporal. That was reported to the squad leader but not to the upper command. If the division had closely checked the mental state of the two soldiers - particularly in the aftermath of a fatal shooting spree in June by a sergeant at a general outpost in the 22nd Infantry Division - they could have prevented it. If general and non-commissioned officers had taken note of the troubled profiles of the two soldiers, they could have prevented two miserable deaths. At the end of the day, officers in charge of managing the two soldiers cannot avoid a special investigation.
Military authorities must find out whether the two young soldiers were harshly treated by senior soldiers. The younger Lee wrote in a notepad app on his phone, “It’s been too difficult so far.” The authorities must lay bare what really happened in the company, including how the division managed soldiers who were in obvious need of attention.
Above all, the military must establish a solid code of conduct for dealing with soldiers who have trouble adjusting to military life. Misfits should be discharged. The military authorities say that although the division tried to classify the younger Lee as “unfit for military service,” his mother opposed his discharge. That judgment should be made by the military, not by a parent. In the meantime, the military must sort out misfits through personality tests. The military is a microcosm of society. Unless the military and civilian sectors put their heads together to find a solution, the government’s drive to revamp the barracks will end up an empty slogan.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 13, Page 30