A cluster of three suicides in less than a week among one ship’s crew has shocked the United States Navy, raising questions about why the suicide rate in the service has climbed sharply in recent years, despite sustained efforts at prevention.
The three deaths were all sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, which is in dry dock in Norfolk, Va., for extensive repairs.
“My heart is broken,” Capt. Sean Bailey, commanding officer of the George H.W. Bush, wrote on Monday in a Facebook post, announcing the deaths among his crew.
“These deaths mark the third, fourth, and fifth crew member suicides in the last two years,” Captain Bailey wrote. “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.”
The three recent cases occurred off base at separate locations. Aviation Ordnanceman First Class Vincent Forline was found dead on Sept. 14, his death ruled a suicide, according to a Navy spokeswoman. Chief Electronics Technician-Nuclear James Shelton and Airman Ethan Stuart died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds on Sept. 19, the Navy said.
The spate of deaths is an unusually visible spike in a persistent problem that has been stalking the Navy — and the American military as a whole — for a decade.
The suicide rate in the Navy, which once ran well below national averages, has worsened rapidly in recent years, more than doubling since 2006. The annual rate is now 20.1 suicide deaths per 100,000 service members, according to Defense Department figures. That is lower than in the Army or Marine Corps, but higher than the civilian rate of about 14 deaths per 100,000.
The ship, which has a crew of more than 5,000, also experienced the suicide in July of another sailor, Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Robert John Bartulewicz III, and the death of a sailor in August who was shot by Navy security forces in August after a high-speed chase on base.
Current and former crew members from the George H.W. Bush said the ship was a high-pressure environment where sailors are often urged by leaders to seek help for mental health issues, but are sidelined or labeled a burden when they do. Several said in reaction to Captain Bailey’s announcement that they did not feel supported by the chain of command.
One sonar technician who also worked on the ship’s security force said that she had sought counseling after a series of experiences on duty that left her troubled, but that it was pushed off.
The technician, who requested that her name not be published because she was not authorized to speak publicly, said that those who did persist in seeking counseling often ended up separated from the military, which did not go unnoticed by other sailors.
A machinist’s mate who worked with one of the sailors who died this month said that family issues and other personal problems that sailors tend to ignore during the hectic times at sea can come to a head when they are ashore. But the machinist’s mate, who also requested that his name not be used, said sailors were reluctant to ask for help because they did not want to be seen as trying to shirk duty.
A Navy spokeswoman, Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg, said the Navy had sent a rapid intervention team of counselors to assist sailors in dealing with the recent suicides. “The leadership of U.S.S. George H.W. Bush are engaged with their crew and focused on taking care of their sailors and their families,” she said. “Chaplains, psychologists, counselors and leadership are providing support and counseling to those grieving.”
Commander Cragg pointed to a number of suicide prevention resources the Navy maintains, and said, “There is never any stigma or repercussion from seeking help.”
The Navy, like the other military branches, has been outspoken about the problem of suicide in the ranks, and has introduced mandatory suicide prevention training, set up crisis hotlines and created new positions for mental health workers. To commemorate the 59 sailors who killed themselves last year, the Navy is displaying 59 pairs of white combat boots this month at Norfolk Naval Base — the George H.W. Bush’s home port.
Still the problem continues to grow.
“The Navy is trying all kinds of protective things and they are working as well as they would like,” said Dr. Eric D. Caine, a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester who studies suicide prevention and the military.
Dr. Caine said the recent deaths among the crew of the George H.W. Bush could have been influenced by one another, even if the sailors did not know one another personally, because of the effect that the news of one such death would have in a close community like a ship’s crew.
“It’s the definition of a suicide cluster,” he said.
The rate of suicides among the nation’s civilian population has also been rising — by about 30 percent since 2000. But unlike the civilian world, everyone in the military is employed and has health care and access to family counseling resources, financial planners and other social safety-net services that experts say tend to lower suicide rates.
Even so, rates across the military continue to rise.
The military’s strategy has been to try to detect troops who are suicidal before they kill themselves, and get them to help. But Dr. Caine suggested that a better strategy might be to create environments where troops won’t become suicidal in the first place.
In recent years, sailors across the Navy have complained of relentless operations with little time off, which has led to problems with discipline and accidents, including fatal ship collisions.
“To get ahead of this problem, the military needs to look upstream and start thinking about how to create community, how to build morale,” Dr. Caine said. “The services are trying extra hard to do suicide prevention by teaching people to recognize if their buddies are struggling. But the question is, how many hours a day are you working? How many days a week? There comes a point when you end up burned out.”