At least four US Navy sailors assigned to the same installation in Virginia have committed suicide in recent weeks, including one on Saturday, military officials and family members said.
It’s the latest cluster of Navy suicides this year raising concerns about a fleet-wide mental health crisis.
The four sailors worked for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center (MARMC), which maintains military ships and is headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia.
“I was struck by the amount of hopelessness in that command,” said Kayla Arestivo, a licensed counselor who was brought in two weeks ago to help the unit’s Sailors.
Many MARMC sailors have been struggling with personal issues that have been exacerbated by a lack of mental health resources on the job and by feeling overworked and underappreciated by their leaders, according to a sailor who spoke with NBC News and Arestivo, who recently led four suicide prevention sessions. in the place.
“Part of this is toxic leadership. The sailors immediately pointed it out,” Arestivo said.
Of the approximately 3,000 people assigned to MARMC, many have limited assignments because they have mental or physical disabilities or are dealing with personal circumstance stressors that prevent them from performing their duties without restriction, Arestivo said.
Arestivo said the Navy should have recognized those challenges for the entire unit and provided help sooner.
“We should know right away that these people are in greater need, they are under greater stress,” said Arestivo, who is also co-founder and president of Trails of Purpose, a nonprofit that provides free mental health care to service members. .
‘It does not have to be this way’
Kody Lee Decker, 22, of Virginia, was on limited duty due to mental health issues when she took her own life Oct. 29, according to a sailor close to Decker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
The electronics technician’s difficulties began in early 2020 while he was serving on the USS Bataan and dealing with “toxic leadership” on the amphibious assault ship, the sailor said.
The sailor said Decker’s mental health worsened after he was transferred to MARMC in August, where his working conditions did not improve and he received no psychological help.
“If he had come to MARMC and they actually acted like they gave a s— and provided resources and followed up, I don’t think we would be sitting here having this conversation,” the sailor said.
Decker, remembered for his outgoing personality and love of high-end sneakers, had just become a father about nine months before his death.
“More children are going to lose their parents. More people are going to lose their spouses, unnecessarily,” said the marine. “It does not have to be this way”.
Exactly one week later, on November 5, Cameron Armstrong committed suicide, his mother, Sharon, said.
Armstrong, 22, was nearing the end of his Navy contract after four years, family and friends said.
He had told his mother that he was feeling depressed, but she said she did not know the extent of his suffering.
“I didn’t think it was that bad. I don’t know what I was going through to do that,” he said.
Sharon said her son, whom she called a “good-hearted soul,” leaves behind his wife, who was his high school sweetheart.
‘We are putting Band-Aids on the bullet holes’
The Navy and local police departments are investigating the circumstances surrounding each death, but military officials said all four deaths have been classified as apparent suicides.
The suicide prevention sessions Arestivo was brought in for were mandatory for staff and were held twice a day on November 14 and 16, MARMC and Arestivo said.
More than half of the division attended, Arestivo said. But the efforts, which came after at least two other sailors had already committed suicide, came too late, he said.
And without systematic changes, the counselor said she knew a couple of seminars and other responses, like suicide awareness emails, wouldn’t be enough to prevent more deaths.
A third sailor died by suicide on November 14. He had not attended the suicide prevention session earlier that day, but he was scheduled to attend the second one, Arestivo said.
“We are putting Band-Aids on the bullet holes,” he said.
On November 16, he said he relayed that message to MARMC’s commanding officer.
“I told him: ‘You will have another one.’ I shook his hand and looked him straight in the eye,” Arestivo said. “And sure as s —, here we are.”
A fourth sailor died by suicide on November 26.
In a statement, MARMC spokesman Douglas Denzine said chaplains, psychologists and counselors were available and leaders were taking a “proactive approach” to support their members, improve mental health and manage stress among sailors.
“One suicide is too many,” Denzine said. “We remain fully committed to our sailors and their families to ensure their health and well-being, and to ensure a climate of trust that encourages sailors to ask for help.”
The latest wave of Navy suicides comes months after three sailors assigned to the USS George Washington killed themselves within a week in April.
Current and former George Washington sailors told NBC News that their struggles were directly related to a culture in which seeking help is not met with the necessary resources, as well as nearly uninhabitable living conditions aboard the ship, including constant construction noise making it impossible to sleep and a lack of hot water and electricity.
Since then, parents of sailors who committed suicide have said the Navy has done little to adequately address a fleet-wide problem. They also criticized the US military for not yet implementing the Brandon Law, which allows service members to seek mental health help confidentially, nearly a year after it was enacted.
In a statement, the Defense Department said it would continue to work toward implementation by the end of the calendar year.
Named after 21-year-old Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, who committed suicide in 2018, Brandon Law not only streamlines mental health assessments, but also provides a confidential channel for service members to self-report. mental health problems.
Caserta’s parents, Arestivo and military mental health experts said both are critical reforms needed to reduce suicides in the services.
“They are sitting on it, and these people are dying. And it’s like they don’t care,” Caserta’s father, Patrick, said.
In 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 519 service members committed suicide, a slight drop from 580 a year earlier, according to the Defense Department, which released new suicide figures in late January. october.
Nearly 17 out of 100,000 Navy sailors died by suicide in 2021, compared with members of the Army, who had the highest rate, about 36 per 100,000, Pentagon statistics show.
“No one is taking into account all this lost potential,” said the sailor who knew Decker. “There’s so much lost potential. It just won’t stop.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741, or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.