Last week, three sailors assigned to the USS George W. Bush committed suicide. The tragic deaths have stunned the entire crew. In the past two years, the ship has lost five members to suicide, including one in July. Authorities say these three recent deaths all happened off the ship, which is docked at Norfolk Naval Shipyard while undergoing repairs.
In a Facebook message to his crew and their families, the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Sean Bailey, wrote: “It is with a heavy heart that I can confirm the loss of three Sailors last week in separate, unrelated incidents from apparent suicide. My heart is broken … Now is the time to come together as a crew and as a family to grieve, to support each other, and to care for those in need.” He urged his crew: “We need All Hands to engage by bringing forward your suggestions and ideas for how we can work together to prevent another suicide. I want to reiterate that there is never any stigma or repercussion from seeking help.”
A special psychiatric rapid intervention team (SPRINT) is on board to counsel the deceased sailors’ shipmates. There is also a team of Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents on board trying to figure out what is going on. According to the Navy Times, the Navy denies any suggestions that the four deaths are indicative of an epidemic. “The sailors did not serve in the same departments, and there does not appear to be a connection between their deaths,” spokeswoman Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg told the newspaper.
This latest cluster of suicides is a tragic addition to an alarming increase in military deaths. According to a report from the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, 139 active-duty soldiers, 68 sailors, 60 airmen and 58 Marines died by suicide last year. That’s 40 more service members than in 2017. Defense Department officials call the numbers “devastating and unacceptable and not going in the desired direction.”
Suicide rates among former service members also are alarming. The Veterans Affairs Department says that veterans are killing themselves at an average rate of 20 every day. According to the Virginia Department of Veterans Services, in 2016 veteran suicides accounted for 14% of all U.S. adult deaths, although they only comprise 8.1% of the U.S. population. Virginia veterans ages 18 to 34 have the highest rates of suicide, but veterans age 55 and older account for the largest number of deaths.
Trying to solve the crisis has become an all-hands-on-deck matter for the military services. In May, Congress held a joint hearing on military and veteran suicides, calling the situation an “enduring and pressing emergency.” Despite the more than $1 billion appropriated in the past for suicide prevention programs in the DoD and the VA, the numbers continue to rise. According to the House Oversight Committee, the suicide rate for veterans ages 18 to 34 rose nearly 80% between 2005 and 2016. That is stunning.
Elizabeth Van Winkle, director of the Department of Defense’s Office of Force Resiliency, addressed members of Congress at the hearing, “My colleagues and I know that every single life lost is a tragedy and each one has a deeply personal story. With each death, we know there are families and often children with shattered lives.”
Since 2004, the DOD and VA have held a biennial joint suicide prevention conference. Conference officials are hopeful the collaborations will produce tangible results. The theme of the most recent conference, held last month, was “Many Roles: One Mission.” Representatives from the VA, DOD and suicide prevention experts from across the country shared research findings on the most effective suicide prevention strategies. For the past 15 years, professionals have been collaborating and still the numbers keep growing.
The truth is no one knows for certain what is behind the staggering suicide rates or what to do to stop them from increasing further. Until that gets figured out, we must all get involved and do our part to address this crisis. And it’s not just the lives of America’s young men and women who have chosen to serve their country that are at stake. The suicide rate for all of our youth are at an all-time high. It has become the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 26. It is incumbent upon each of us to educate ourselves on this national emergency. Learn to recognize the symptoms and reach out to those in need. We are all our brother’s and sister’s keepers.
If you know a service member struggling with depression, encourage him or her to talk to their command. Veterans can call the Veterans Crisis Hotline, 1-800-273-8255. For others who are suffering, please encourage them to call the National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Help is available.
— Robin Beres