Navy leaders as well as congressional representatives are vowing to address the service’s persistent mental health problems, which have been punctuated by a recent suicide crisis, after a tour of a facility where four sailors died by suicide in just over a month.
Lawmakers are pointing to a 2021 law that was meant to provide help and asking why it hasn’t been fully put into effect by the Pentagon.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Congressman Bobby Scott, D-Va., visited the Naval Maintenance Center in Norfolk, Virginia, along with Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro on Tuesday in an effort to better understand why the unit experienced a rash of suicides in November 2022.
Kaine, speaking to reporters after the tour, said that Del Toro acknowledged that more needs to be done for sailors.
“We owe you maybe better and more than we’re providing right now,” Kaine said Del Toro told the sailors.
Aside from the four suicides at the maintenance center, the Navy failed to disclose a string of suicides aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which is in the final months of a years-long overhaul in a Virginia shipyard. The last known suicide aboard that ship occurred in April 2022.
The Navy’s two top sailors both recently said that the service’s suicide problem keeps them up at night.
Kaine connected the two suicide clusters by explaining that both commands have a large contingent of sailors who lack a clear understanding of their purpose in the Navy.
In the case of the aircraft carrier, the senator, as well as sailors who spoke with Military.com, described a daily existence that is far from what they expected out of their service.
“You thought you were gonna be doing some probably out on the water, then you’re in a very different situation, and it’s a loud construction site — not, maybe, what you thought it was,” Kaine explained.
“That can sometimes lead to a little bit of a sense of ‘What’s my purpose?'”
Meanwhile, the maintenance center has a large contingent of sailors — 400 to 600 out of around 1,500 — who are there on non-permanent orders, including sailors on humanitarian orders, pregnancy or postpartum status, or limited duty.
“There’s a group of people there … they don’t know, are they there for a year, are they there for three years? What’s the next step beyond?” Kaine said.
The senator suggested that both the ratio of sailors “who might be working in a command on a limited-duty status” as well as the time it takes for someone to get a medical appointment for mental health issues could be part of the solution.
Kaine also highlighted an issue others in Congress have been pointing to: the fact that a key piece of legislation aimed at giving service members easier access to mental health treatment has yet to be implemented.
The Brandon Act — named after Brandon Caserta, who died via suicide in 2018 — was passed last year but still hasn’t been implemented by military services.
Kaine ascribed the delay to a tension between the Pentagon and the law’s key provisions designed to allow service members to confidentially seek mental health help.
“Do we want to provide more confidential paths or do we want to make it more normal to just talk about it?” Kaine said, adding that “these things can be kind of [cross] purposes sometimes in terms of how you implement them.”
Military.com reported on the case of one sailor who, in the course of seeking help for his mood disorder, was given a drug test that came back positive for cannabinoids — the family of drugs associated with marijuana. The sailor denied having used any substances, but the results were still reported back to his ship by his doctor and he was convicted of drug use.
Kaine said that he’s “seen this movie before — we do something that’s good … now we got to just stay on it; to make sure it’s being implemented in the spirit with which it was intended.”
The senator added that implementing the act is “going to be my focus going into the NDAA this year.” At that point, the Brandon Act will be approaching three years of age.
Speaking to the sailors at the maintenance center, Del Toro had a simpler message: “I need you to take care of each other.
“Talk to each other, find out what you’re struggling with,” Del Toro said, according to a transcript provided by the Navy to Military.com.
“Let me assure you that this is one family — it is. I’m saying this from experience.”