NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — The aircraft carrier USS George Washington proves that a ship’s crew doesn’t have to go to battle or even be at sea to be in danger.
Three crew members connected to the Washington died by suicide in the same week in April, and the crew has had seven deaths overall in the past 12 months. The Navy has launched a pair of investigations and this week the Navy Secretary and the Chief of Naval Operations toured the ship and talked with sailors, after both officials faced a Senate hearing last week.
10 On Your Side spoke exclusively with an anonymous sailor who was part of the crew for two years before separating from the Navy two months ago. He describes a culture of death, despair, and when it comes to seeking help — discouragement.
Meanwhile, the parents who run a foundation that helps military members in crisis are hearing from sailors aboard the carrier that the notion of ending a life is part of everyday life.
A sailor’s mother who we’ll call Angela found out last week that her son, who’s connected to the Washington, was in the hospital after attempting suicide May 9. But this was only the second time. He had tried to take his life in January as well.
“I was blown away. I didn’t see any red flags or any indicators that he was going to do this,” she said. She said she didn’t know about the first attempt until this more recent attempt.
“It’s devastating,” said Teri Caserta. She and her husband Patrick have lived through the horror, the shock and the grief of military suicide. They lost their son Brandon at Naval Station Norfolk four years ago.
Through their foundation they got a law passed in December that makes it easier to seek mental health assistance outside the chain of command, but in reality it’s not having any practical effect.
Lately, they’re hearing from sailors aboard the USS George Washington and “a lot of them knew the ones that have taken their lives,” Teri Caserta said. A sailor we’re calling “Thomas” knew seaman recruit Xavier H. Mitchell-Sandor, one of three crew suicides in one week in April.
“I tried everything in my power to stop him, and eventually it happened and I couldn’t do anything about it,” Thomas said.
The Casertas say they’re shocked by what they’re hearing from other crew members.
“When they get breaks they sit around and talk about ways to off themselves, like throwing a toaster in a tub, jumping off to the cement, being hit by a bus. They wouldn’t care if they were hit by a bus,” Patrick Caserta said.
“Who wants to live like that?” Angela said in a Tuesday interview. “Who would want to sit around and talk about how they’re going to end their lives? That is not OK, and if [the Navy doesn’t] see that as a problem for these sailors to get the appropriate help that they need, then I don’t know what other flashing lights they need.”
Thomas says that aligns with the grim conversations he had heard while on board.
“You’d just get in a group and be like, ‘man I wish I could [kill myself]’ or ‘I wish I could do that.’ It’s very true, I’ve seen it. I would talk them through it but it would never be, ‘hey why don’t you seek help?'”
“The problem is that they are so scared of retaliation,” Teri Caserta said.
In fact, Thomas says seeking help often backfires.
“Half the time when they say do you need help, the help is a trap. It’s meant to deter you,” he said. “They would kind of threaten you — if you don’t stop [complaining] we’re gonna send you to Captain’s Mast. ‘But I’m trying to ask for help’. And they’d go, ‘well, this is your help. We’re telling you stop, or you’ll go and get in trouble and ruin your career'”.
Angela says the details surrounding her son’s two attempts to end his life are dripping out with each conversation since he was hospitalized last week. But he remains adamant on one aspect — he doesn’t want to return to the USS George Washington.
“He said ‘you can put me anywhere in the world, and you can have me do anything in the world, but do not put me back on that ship.’ He said ‘I’ll do boot camp for all five years that I’m enlisted, anything, not to go back to that ship.’ He said there’s something about that ship, and it’s evil.”
In addition to what Thomas described as an atmosphere of discouragement and intimidation surrounding sailors seeking help, we asked what other factors are leading them to such levels of desperation.
“Number one, living conditions. Honestly, I’d rather be homeless than live on that ship,” he said. “The beds, legitimately, are from prisons. It says on the back ‘United States Prison.’ There’s people that I know that didn’t have running water for three to six months. No place to shower, brush your teeth, use the bathroom. Half the bathrooms are broken on the ship.”
Prior to the three deaths in April, Navy suicides were actually heading downward, according to the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. For the fourth quarter of 2021 and for all of last year, active duty suicides in the Navy were down year-to-year.
Navy veteran and Congresswoman Elaine Luria (D-Norfolk) toured the ship earlier this month. She wants to see the Navy do a better job of on-boarding.
“When a new sailor arrives at the ship, making sure they’re assigned a sponsor, someone who’s been there a while, a little more senior to them who knows the area and can help them to connect,” Luria said.
She says based on her experience serving on two carriers and commanding an amphibious vessel, chaplains are vital sources to avert a crisis.
“The chaplain always operates in complete confidentiality with individual sailors, but just being able to talk to them about the trends — what are the things that you’re hearing on the deck plates?”
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro toured the carrier May 17, and faced questioning from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) last week during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The Department of the Navy, we need to collectively do a better job to provide the necessary resources to the ship itself,” Del Toro told the committee.
Following Del Toro’s visit to the carrier, the Department of Defense announced a schedule of site visits for the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee (SPRIRC), which was established by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on March 22. SPRIRC will be led by Dr. Gayle Iwamasa, a leading expert in mental health from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The projected schedule includes Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Naval Air Station North Island, California; Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Fort Wainwright, Alaska; Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska; Camp Humphreys, South Korea and the North Carolina National Guard.
The Navy says it strives to ensure a climate of trust that encourages sailors to ask for help. On board the ship are a licensed psychologist, a behavioral health technician, three chaplains, a licensed clinical social worker known as a Deployed Resiliency Counselor, and an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Team.
Ongoing investigations are looking into two key areas — links among the three April suicides and other recent deaths, as well as command climate and various quality of life issues aboard ships sidelined for extensive maintenance.
Navy spokesman CDR Robert Myers gave this detailed response to what is being done in the wake of the suicides and what resources are available for troubled sailors.
Angela says her son is now out of the hospital after his two suicide attempts. She hopes his case will shed light on the need for better mental health support before it’s too late.
What he said during one of their recent conversations terrified her.
“He said ‘If I have to go back to that ship my next suicide attempt will not be a failure. It will be a success the next time.’ That got me scared.”
“It’s a bad place to live in,” Thomas said. “No matter what this chain of command, the higher-ups tell you at the top, it’s just a politics game. It’s the lower-enlisted that are the ones that are taking their lives.”
“That commanding officer and his team, they need to be held accountable,” Teri Caserta said.