3 Suicides Among the Crew of a Single Navy Ship in 1 Week Highlight Rising Trend in U.S. Military

A string of suicides by sailors from the Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush last week has prompted an investigation by local and federal authorities—but it reflects a tragic trend in the Navy, the U.S. military more broadly and across the country.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is currently assisting local authorities in Portsmouth and Norfolk in investigating three deaths — one that took place on Sept. 14 and two that occurred on Sept. 19, Navy officials said Tuesday.

The ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Sean Bailey, acknowledged the suicides in a Facebook post on Monday and said, “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.”

“My heart is broken,” he said.

Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg, public affairs officer for the Naval Air Force Atlantic, said in a statement to TIME that Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Vincent Vincent Forline was found dead off base on Sept. 14. Chief Electronics Technician, Nuclear James Shelton and Airman Ethan Stuart were found dead in separate incidents at off-base locations on Sept. 19.

Cragg said a special psychiatric rapid intervention team is on board the aircraft carrier to assist those grieving, in addition to chaplains, psychologists and counselors. She added that the sailors “did not serve in the same departments and there does not appear to be a connection between their deaths.” The USS George H.W. Bush, is currently at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and has 2,800 sailors serving on it, Cragg said.

This is not the first time the USS George H. W. Bush has grieved sailors because of suicide; the crew has lost two other sailors over the last two years—one in November 2017 and another in July 2019.

The deaths are part of a troubling trend of suicides within the Navy and U.S. military.

In 2018, 325 active-duty members died by suicide —the highest number since the Pentagon began tracking suicides in 2001, according to Military.com.

In 2018, a total of 68 active-duty Navy service members died by suicide, the U.S. Navy reports. That number, as well as the rate of suicide, has been steadily increasing over the last decade. In 2017, 65 active-duty members died, followed by 52 in 2016 and 43 in 2015.

Suicides have not just been rising in the military. The last time the nationwide suicide rates were this high was in World War II, according to federal data. And while veterans and military service members contribute to that total, the casualty count also includes victims of the opioid crisis and those likely affected by widespread social media use and high stress. In 2017, 14 out of 100,000 Americans died by suicide, according to to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 33% increase since 1999.

The Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said in a blog post last week that sailors often exhibit signs of distress, but their fellow service members “weren’t able to recognize them as indicators of suicide risk.” He encouraged Navy personnel to “trust your gut,” “use intrusive leadership” and “look your shipmates in the eyes, and ask, ‘Are you okay?'”

Gilday said he expects leaders to “build and support Command Resilience Teams” and “set a tone within their commands where sailors feel comfortable and have the courage to ask for help without fear of judgement or consequences.”

The Department of Defense lists a number of mental health resources for service members and veterans, including a crisis support helpline for those affected by sexual assault or others who want to speak to a counselor and an initiative that “pays essential household bills while a wounded service member or veteran is attending residential treatment for a traumatic brain injury or PTSD.”

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.