(NewsNation) — As the Navy investigates a rash of suicides linked to the USS George Washington, its highest-ranking enlisted member Wednesday told Congress of extended wait times for sailors who need mental health services.
According to Russell Smith, master chief petty officer of the Navy, “except for the most egregious cases, those at the precipice of suicide, appointment times average five weeks.”
Smith described his frustration when he recently sought help.
“I had to use a private provider at my own expense,” he said, “something our sailors should never have to do.”
(If you or someone you know is thinking of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free support at 800-273-8255. Starting July 16, 2022, U.S. residents can also be connected to the Lifeline by dialing 988. For more about risk factors and warning signs, visit the organization’s official website.)
Smith, along with Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, were called before a congressional panel in the midst of a string of suicides on the USS George Washington in Virginia.
In the past year, seven service members connected to the ship have died.
Four of these deaths were confirmed or apparent suicides, with three of the bodies being found in less than a week.
In her first TV interview, the mother of a USS George Washington sailor, who asked that she not be identified, told NewsNation about her son’s recent suicide attempt.
“I was very shocked when I heard him calling, say that he’s alive and that he tried to end his life and that he’s hospitalized,” she said. “I think more needs to be done, I think there needs to be policies and procedures in place to take these men and women seriously when they threaten, or when they attempt to get them the help that they need.”
She spoke out the same day Del Toro made a high-profile visit to the aircraft carrier, where four sailors took their own lives in the last year — three in the span of one week in April.
Del Toro visited the ship Tuesday, making him the most senior official to “hear firsthand” from the ship’s crew and leadership, according to Capt. J.D. Dorsey, a Navy spokesperson.
Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday visited the ship to “determine how things are going, and determine if there are other actions that need to be taken,” Dorsey said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first mentioned the visit on Wednesday during public remarks.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Del Toro said the Navy is trying to get sailors help when they need it.
“We are prioritizing access to mental health care and eliminating barriers to seeking help,” he said.
The Pentagon announced details of a new committee aimed at preventing suicides and is reviewing mental health care policies in the military.
Pentagon officials are expected to visit several installations in the leadup to providing the military and Congress with a report due in February.
The USS George Washington has been docked in Newport News since 2017 for a refueling and complex overhaul.
When NewsNation asked why Naval Station Norfolk, near where the USS George Washington is based, isn’t on the list of scheduled visits, a Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement the locations were selected “to include geographically isolated areas and installations outside the contiguous United States.”
And the committee, the statement continued, “will focus its efforts on the original installations chosen, but may visit additional locations to inform their work.”
The Associated Press and The Hill contributed to this report.