PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy is sharing his story after hearing about three sailors at Naval Station Norfolk who died by suicide earlier this month.
The veteran, who asked that we hide his identity, retired in 2010 after serving 20 years. He tells 10 On Your Side the system is broken when it comes to mental health and that he would know–he attempted to take his own life in 2007.
“I was standing on the ship, had a 9mm, pulled it, and was talked down,” said the former sailor, “even though it’s been 15 years, I still get worked up.”
He tells us he felt he had nowhere to turn and was struggling.
“Mental health is the quiet killer. We can’t really talk about it because if you get removed we lose a body. OK well if I blow my head off, you lose a body. Which one do you want?” the man explained.
His saving grace came in the form of his command physician, who told him to go to Portsmouth Medical Center, submit a self-referral and get help from a mental health professional. It’s something he says he had no idea he had the power to do, and according to his physician, was not supposed to know.
“You can self-referral. [Sailors are] not told. I understand mission comes first. To achieve the mission, you need bodies. You need healthy bodies,” the man said.
The sailor credits the referral with saving his life, but says the following weeks weren’t easy. He says it felt like he was letting his ship down while he was on temporary assigned duty, or TAD, for his mental health.
“When I came back he [the physician] said I’m going to secure you on medical because when I tell the commanding officer you’re TAD you’re going to upset a lot of people on the ship. Nobody will be able to replace you and we’re about to get underway. He said but your mental health is primary,” he stated.
Today the veteran attends regular therapy and helps other sailors who are struggling. When he learned about the three sailors at MARMC who died by suicide this month, the news hit close to home. He stresses the system is broken and needs to change or else sailors who’ve never seen combat will keep dying.
In reference to MARMC’s mental health stand down last week, the veteran tells us he’s attended those meetings and oftentimes they’re no more than a sailor clicking through a PowerPoint. If someone misses the presentation, a link to the PowerPoint is emailed to them. He says an annual PowerPoint presentation and mental health pamphlets aren’t enough. The culture and conversation surrounding mental health, he says, needs to change and it needs to start with leadership.
“If your sailor truly needs help, you’ll have to utilize all your resources or you’re going to be standing over a casket. Stop the harassment when you see it. Talk to the sailor who is quiet and immediately withdrawn. If you hear a rumor, address it before it gets out of hand,” the man said.
He also says to keep a watchful eye on the sailors who take down the reports of their colleagues after completing a 50-hour online course to become qualified.
“How do you know you’re mentally prepared to hear that person’s story if they got sexually harassed? Raped? Mugged? If they dealt with dead bodies overseas? Whatever’s the cause of trauma, how does 50 hours prepare you for that story? Prepare you to be there for that sailor and say ‘I understand, or I know how to get you help,'” the man explained.
To those who are struggling, he urges them to seek help and don’t be afraid to submit a self-referral.
“Let a professional diagnose you, help you, assess you. Let a professional make that call, not your command,” the veteran said.
10 On Your Side has reached out to MARMC’s public affairs officer four separate times in the past week regarding the three sailors who died by suicide. They have not responded. We’ve also learned Congresswoman Elaine Luria has contacted the Navy and has not heard back.
On Tuesday, Senator Tim Kaine expressed his sadness regarding the deaths.
“I’m heartbroken to learn of the deaths of these three sailors, and my prayers are with their loved ones. One of my top priorities as the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness is to ensure that every member of our armed forces has access to the mental health services that can save lives. Last year, I worked with my colleagues to include the bipartisan Brandon Act—which would allow servicemembers to confidentially seek mental health treatment and reduce the stigma around reporting—in the annual armed services funding bill. I’m pushing the Department of Defense to implement the bill as quickly as possible—and working to secure additional mental health resources for our armed forces through this year’s annual defense funding bill—so we can get servicemembers the mental health services they need. I’ll also be raising these tragic deaths with Naval leadership directly as we work to address this immense challenge facing our military community.”U.S. Senator Tim Kaine
Sen. Mark Warner also issued a statement to WAVY Tuesday about the recent deaths:
“I join the community in mourning the three Norfolk sailors who died by suicide in recent weeks. The truth is that this time of year can be particularly difficult for the men and women of our armed forces who serve our nation year-round and often have to spend the holidays away from their loved ones. Sailors should never suffer alone or in silence. I encourage any sailor who is struggling or considering suicide to reach out to the command suicide prevention coordinator, the Navy Fleet & Family Support Center, the local command chaplain, or Military OneSource. My prayers are with the families of the deceased.”U.S. Senator Mark Warner
Check WAVY.com for the latest updates.