On 12 January 2018, an unidentified sailor from the USS North Dakota (SSN-784) attempted suicide by turning his own weapon against himself while on board his ship.1 On 14 September 2019, Aviation Ordnanceman First Class Vincent Forline died by suicide, followed by two shipmates from his crew just five days later—Chief Electronics Technician Nuclear James Shelton and Airman Ethan Stuart.2 And on 4 December 2019, Machinist Mate Auxiliary Fireman Gabriel Romero killed two shipyard workers, Vincent Kapoi and Roldan Agustin, before turning his service-issued weapon on himself, ending his own life.3 It would seem that, while constantly preparing for the threat of war, the modern sailor is fighting a different kind of battle: mental health.
From 2015 to 2020, the Navy’s annual suicide rate experienced a statistically significant increase, rising to 19.3 per 100,000 sailors in 2020.4 The pervasive nature of mental health issues and the lessons learned from the deaths presented above demonstrate the importance of appropriate mental health care. Unfortunately, mental health often is not prioritized by military leaders for a variety of reasons: They might believe mental health help is for the weak and is therefore a waste of time, or perhaps they believe the watchbill and manning come before all else, and seeking mental health treatment could threaten the number of personnel available to stand watch.
It is easy for the Navy to continue to push the idea that we all are warfighters, tough and unyielding. Yet, a naval version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would show that certain basic needs must be met before the Navy can be ready for war.
For example, on my ship, and on many others in the fleet, undermanning is a huge issue. A three-section, port-and-starboard watchbill keeps all sailors busy and in a constant state of burnout. Sailors on my ship work between 86 and 103 hours per week, depending on whether there are two or three duty days in that week. And of this time, 30 to 40 hours are spent on watch alone.
If I am struggling with balancing my divisional responsibilities, collateral duties, duty days, qualifications, delinquent study, watch times, sleep, family time, and personal responsibilities (in the few hours a week I spend outside of work), what are my options? Should I use my off time to seek assistance, or would I rather use that time to get the only eight consecutive hours of sleep I’ll get this month? Should I go during working hours and be seen by my shipmates or chain of command as a malingerer? When I am overwhelmed on my duty day and cannot leave my ship, can I get immediate, confidential help before I am tempted to misuse my service-issued weapon as others before me have?
An overemphasis on watchbill and manning has led to rapid burnout and mental decline in sailors across the fleet. Fireman Romero, who shot three civilians and then himself, struggled with issues that were not addressed fully, specifically because his boat, the USS Columbia (SSBN-771), did not want to lose a sailor off the watchbill.5 It is easy for the chain of command to tell sailors to seek mental health help and take care of each other, but it is not as easy when it comes to allowing time off from work for the sailor to get into a better mind-set. If the Navy wants sailors to be able to gain a healthy mind-set and be in a safe place mentally, it needs to allow sailors to relax and get the help they need. This may involve creating more realistic timelines for work to be accomplished that will allow sailors to take more time away from the busy environment of the shipyard.
In addition, mental health professionals should have easy access to ships to meet the sailors in the environment in which the problems lie. Commanding officers need to realize that at some point, their sailors are people first and have needs that must be met before work, deployment, and war can be done. With continual pushing, people break down. Morale and mental health cannot survive in an environment that cannot or will not allow time for sailors to nurture their mental state back to health.
Unfortunately, even in scenarios in which there is time and enough manning for sailors to seek mental health help, many abstain, as there exists a stigma about doing so. Often, those seeking help are labeled “malingerers” or “mentally soft” and are seen as wasting time. Though the Navy’s official policy is that it is okay to seek mental health care, the reality is that the de facto policy is something along the lines of “suck it up.” Instead of helping sailors struggling with mental health issues, the Navy often punishes sailors often for the resulting negative effect on the quality of their work.
For example, Fireman Romero was given counseling or extra military instruction on ten occasions prior to the shooting and had a history of crying when confronted about his poor job performance.6 Despite his chain of command’s knowledge about his repeated visits to mental health facilities and warning signs of suicidal ideation, his veiled cries for help were met with harsh reprimand. This was not a sailor who was equipped to deal with the stresses of the Navy, yet with watchbill manning taking priority over of the lives of sailors, Romero was allowed to remain in the Navy, on his ship, and on the armed watchstander list. This was a sailor whose chain of command knew he was seeking treatment.
Not all sailors who need mental health care seek it. Some who do seek help are met with reprimand because of an overemphasis on work and underemphasis on sailors as people who need to be taken care of first. Sailors cannot succeed in getting better if they are constantly battling both fear of being ostracized by shipmates and the knowledge that their attempt to improve their mental state will not protect them from punishment if they are behind in their workload. Instead of punishing sailors to force success by instilling fear, commands should look for sailors displaying warning signs and get them early intervention and mentorship to keep them on the right path and prevent them from spiraling out of control.
We sailors need to learn from our mistakes. We cannot go back in time and stop Petty Officer Forline, Chief Shelton, or Airman Stuart from committing suicide. We cannot reverse the deaths of Vincent Kapoi, Roldan Agustin, or Fireman Romero. But we can learn lessons. Instead of conducting a 30-minute training session about mental health options in the military, sailors should have open and honest conversations about their struggles. Commands need to conduct more frequent climate surveys and work to address the widespread issues. Peers must look out for each other and recognize when someone is displaying concerning warning signs. Commands must internalize a people-first mind-set that allows sailors to guard their mental health before they work themselves to the bone. Sailors need to be aware of how the “suck it up” mind-set is harmful to those facing legitimate personal struggles that they cannot go through alone. More than anything, the Navy needs to start caring about its people before stress turns into mental disorders, and mental disorders turn into danger.
The Navy needs to start looking after its people, instead of managing its sailors. After all, a few lost hours of work are nothing compared with the pain of losing a shipmate.
1. Geoff, Ziezulewicz, “Sailor Who Shot Himself Had Been Taken off Submarine’s Gun List a Few Months Earlier,” Navy Times, 31 July 2018.
2. Dave Philipps, “Three Suicides in One Navy Ship’s Crew Point to a Growing Problem,” The New York Times, 24 September 2019.
3. Geoff Ziezulewicz, “A Troubled Sailor Was ‘Underdiagnosed’ by Mental Health Officials before Mass Shooting,” Navy Times, 29 September 2020.
4. Department of Defense, Annual Suicide Report Calendar Year 2020 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 3 September 2021).
5. ADM Michael Gilday, USN, Command Investigation Report Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard Shooting of December 4, 2019 (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 12 March 2020), 82.
6. Gilday, Command Investigation Report, 45.