Editorial: Combating service suicides

Jonathon Gruenke/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS
·3 min read

Before winning bipartisan approval in the U.S. House this much, the National Defense Authorization Act was amended to include a provision that could well save the lives of service members here in Hampton Roads.

The House Armed Services Committee added provisions to provide funding and services to address mental health concerns. The actions followed a rash of suicides, including several among sailors assigned to the USS George Washington, which is being overhauled in Newport News.

The House and Senate must resolve their differences in the enormous defense bill before it reaches President Joe Biden’s desk, but the mental health component should be non-negotiable as it is essential to the well-being of our men and women in uniform.

Rear Adm. John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, confirmed earlier this year that nine sailors assigned to the Washington had died in the last two years, six of whom committed suicide. He pledged aggressive action by his command to “ensure support and resources are available to sailors in the shipyards, at sea and at home.”

The Washington began its refueling in 2017 and is expected to remain at the Newport News shipyard until work is completed in 2023. That is a long time, a period extended by pandemic-related delays. And it could mean that young crew members, who expected to do their duty on the high seas, may have spent much of their service on land.

Though appalling, the Washington’s situation isn’t without precedent. In 2019, five crew members on the USS George H.W. Bush killed themselves in three months while the ship was at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Service members assigned to remote outposts and in Arctic climates are also a concern, since the isolation can affect their mental health.

So it was laudable to see the House committee adopt proposals cosponsored by Rep. Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander who represents the 2nd Congressional District, that will help address this crisis.

Since the first part of any solution is understanding the problem, those measures direct studies of housing and parking facilities for crews of carriers and submarines undergoing lengthy refueling and overhaul work, with an eye toward improving working and living conditions.

They include $200 pay stipends for crews of vessels undergoing refueling and $300 stipends for service members in cold-weather posts. They will help subsidize the cost for sailors who want to move closer to the shipyard, and they instruct the Navy to consider changing policy so that sailors won’t start their careers assigned to a carrier in the yards for a long time.

These and similar changes to address known problems could make a difference.

Living conditions can be a challenge for some sailors while a ship is in the yards. Many are able to live off the ship. Making the commute easier by helping them and their families move closer to the shipyard sounds reasonable.

But others, often the youngest enlisted sailors who don’t qualify for housing allowances, must live on the ship, or on barges nearby. Conditions can be deplorable — noisy, dirty, poor ventilation, basic things that don’t work.

Such specific measures are worth trying. At the same time, efforts must continue to address the broader problem of suicide and mental-health problems across the military. Recruiting practices and policies may need reviewing.

Chaplains and mental-health professionals should be readily available, and sailors should be encouraged to turn to them for help. A young person in crisis may not be able to wait weeks for a mental-health appointment.

Efforts must continue to combat the “warrior culture” and remove the longstanding stigma associated with seeking help for mental-health problems.

Correcting known, fixable problems that contribute to the alarming rate of suicide in the military is a good, necessary start. We must also work to determine and deal with more of the complex causes of these recurring tragedies.

The importance of these measures is without question. Congress should make sure they reach the president’s desk.