At least four U.S. Navy sailors assigned to the same facility in Virginia have died by suicide in recent weeks, including one as late as Saturday, military officials and family members said.
It is the latest cluster of Navy suicides this year to raise concerns of a fleet-wide mental health crisis.
The four sailors worked for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center (MARMC), which maintains military vessels and is based in Norfolk, Virginia.
“I was overwhelmed with the amount of desperation at this command,” said Kayla Arestivo, a licensed counselor who was brought in two weeks ago to help the unit’s sailors.
Many MARMC sailors have struggled with personal issues that have been exacerbated by a lack of mental health resources at work and feel overworked and undervalued by their leaders, according to a sailor who spoke with NBC News and Arestivo, who recently conducted four suicide prevention sessions. on the site.
“Part of that is toxic leadership. The sailors reported it immediately,” Arestivo said.
Of the approximately 3,000 people assigned to MARMC, many are on limited duty because they have mental or physical disabilities or face personal circumstantial stressors that prevent them from fully performing their duties without restriction, Arestivo said. .
Arestivo said the Navy should have recognized these challenges for the unit as a whole and provided help sooner.
“Right away, we should know that these people have more needs, are under higher stress,” said Arestivo, who is also co-founder and president of Trails of Purpose, a nonprofit that provides free mental health care for the military.
“It doesn’t have to be like this”
Kody Lee Decker, 22, of Virginia, was on limited duty due to mental health issues when he killed himself Oct. 29, according to a sailor close to Decker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
The electronics technician’s struggles began in early 2020 while serving the USS Bataan and dealing with “toxic leadership” on the amphibious assault ship, the sailor said.
The sailor said Decker’s mental health deteriorated once he was transferred in August to MARMC, where his working conditions did not improve and he did not receive psychological help.
“If he had come to MARMC and they had actually acted like they had given an s— and provided resources and follow-up, I don’t think we would be sitting here having this conversation,” said the sailor.
Decker, known 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,” the sailor said. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”
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, his family and friends said.
He had told his mother he felt 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 he was going through to do that,” she said.
Sharon said her son, who she called a “kind-hearted soul”, leaves behind his wife, who was his high school sweetheart.
“We put bandages 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 invited to were mandatory for staff and were held twice a day on Nov. 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 taken their own lives, were too late, she said.
And without systematic changes, the counselor said she knew a pair of seminars and other responses, such as suicide awareness emails, wouldn’t be enough to prevent more deaths.
A third sailor committed suicide on November 14. He had not attended the suicide prevention session earlier in the day, but was scheduled to attend the second, Arestivo said.
“We put bandages on the bullet holes,” she said.
On November 16, she said she passed this message on to the commander of MARMC.
“I said to him, ‘You will have another one.’ I shook his hand and looked him straight in the eye,” Arestivo said. “And of course s—, here we are.”
A fourth sailor committed suicide on November 26.
In a statement, MARMC spokesperson Douglas Denzine said chaplains, psychologists and counselors were available and leaders were taking a “proactive approach” to supporting its members, improving mental health and managing stress. sailors.
“One suicide is too much,” Denzine said. “We remain fully engaged with our sailors and their families to ensure their health and well-being, and to ensure an atmosphere of trust that encourages sailors to seek help.”
The latest wave of Navy suicides comes months after three sailors assigned to the USS George Washington killed themselves in a week in April.
Current and former George Washington sailors told NBC News their struggles are directly linked to a culture where seeking help is not met with the resources needed, as well as near uninhabitable living conditions on board. of the ship, including constant construction noise that made sleeping impossible and a lack of hot water and electricity.
Since then, relatives of sailors who died by 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 Act, which allows service members to confidentially request mental health help, nearly a year after it was enacted.
In a statement, the Ministry of Defense said it would continue to work on its implementation by the end of the calendar year.
Named after Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, 21, who died by suicide in 2018, Brandon’s Law not only expedites mental health assessments but also provides a confidential channel for service members to report them. even their mental health problems.
Parents from Caserta, Arestivo and military mental health experts said both were key reforms needed to reduce suicides on the wards.
“They sit on it and these people die. And it’s like they don’t care,” Caserta’s father Patrick said.
In 2021, the most recent year for which full data is available, 519 service members died by suicide, down slightly from 580 the previous year, according to the Department of Defense, which released new figures on the suicides at the end of October.
Nearly 17 out of 100,000 Navy sailors died by suicide in 2021, compared to members of the military, which had the highest rate, at around 36 per 100,000, according to Pentagon statistics.
“Nobody takes into account all this lost potential,” said the sailor who knew Decker. “There’s so much lost potential. It’s just not going to stop.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, 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.
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