'Stick Around, We Need You': The Navy's Top Officer Opens Up About His Worry Over Suicide

Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, speaks at the Surface Navy Association conference
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, speaks to an auditorium of more than a hundred people at the annual Surface Navy Association conference held in Alexandria, Virginia, Jan. 10, 2023. (Twitter)

The Navy's top uniformed officer told a packed crowd of largely fellow Navy leaders and retired officers that one of the biggest problems that keeps him up at night is not Ukraine or Russia but the service's suicide problem.

"I think it's the same thing that keeps [the master chief petty officer of the Navy] awake at night: It's suicides," Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, told an auditorium of more than a hundred people at the annual Surface Navy Association conference held in Arlington, Virginia.

"That problem, mental health, is a vexing problem for us," he added.

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Gilday's remarks come after a particularly challenging year for the Navy in terms of suicide and mental health and amid a push to add yet another resource to fight the problem -- more chaplains.

In April 2022, Military.com revealed that the USS George Washington was experiencing a spate of suicides that went back months. The aircraft carrier had been in the shipyards undergoing a massive yearslong overhaul, and sailors described difficult working and living conditions after much of the crew had been ordered to move back aboard the ship.

Despite initially being told that there was nothing the Navy could do about living conditions aboard the ship, less than two weeks after news of the suicides became public, the crew was offered a chance to move off the carrier. Rear Adm. John Meier, the officer who oversees the ship, told reporters in May that "if I knew then what I know today, I think we would have clearly delayed [the] crew move aboard."

Then, in December, another cluster of four suicides was discovered at a maintenance center in Norfolk, Virginia, and it was revealed that key legislation meant to provide extra resources for struggling sailors hadn't been fully put in place yet.

These deaths are just a portion of the 70 suicides that the Navy reported in 2022. That figure is the second highest annual number in more than a decade, according to Navy data.

Gilday's frustration was evident. "We continue to put resources against it," he told the auditorium.

"We have mental health facilities available. ... We have resiliency teams on our [amphibious readiness groups] and our carrier strike groups, and yet it's still not enough," he added.

Both Gilday and Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, commander of the Navy's surface forces in the Pacific, said that the service plans to add chaplains to every deploying destroyer in the near future.

In a media call with reporters last week, Kitchener said that "the feedback I get from commanding officers is that the ships that have chaplains on board -- we tend to see less unplanned losses and less issues."

Typically, chaplains would become part of a smaller ship's crew only when that unit was getting ready to deploy. This program makes them permanent crew members.

Kitchener said that the Navy currently has 29 chaplains aboard destroyers in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, but looks to add 22 more by 2023 and finish the additions by 2025. The program would likely mean the Navy will need to also step up recruiting efforts for chaplains, Kitchener noted.

The additional chaplains are only one program among many that Navy leaders are mentioning when asked about the problem of suicide. Others include initiatives to put mental health resources closer to sailors and train more counselors.

"We are maxing out the number of corpsmen we send through school, whether it's a military school or civilian school, to become behavioral health technicians," Gilday said.

One of the reasons that Navy leaders talk about putting resources closer to ships, if not outright on them, is that sailors can have difficulty finding time to reach far-flung resources.

One of the Navy's investigations into some of the suicides aboard the George Washington noted that one of the reasons sailors aboard the ship tended not to utilize a "deployed resiliency counselor" was because "it is a three-mile walk from the ship and they are hesitant to take that much time off to go there (or don't believe they can)."

The key variable often ends up being the individual sailor's chain of command and the level of help and support they offer. However, this is an area where the Navy's new top enlisted sailor -- Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea -- seems to want to make a difference.

Honea said that "everyday I read about [a suicide], it crushes me."

Gilday also suggested more changes could be in store.

"I would say that the Secretary of the Navy is very interested in the final investigation on [George Washington] that lays out in more detail what investments we should make to improve," the admiral told reporters Tuesday.

"Our message is: 'Stick around, we need you. We can help you,'" Gilday told the auditorium.

Military personnel and veterans in crisis can get support 24 hours a day, seven days a week by dialing 988 and pressing 1. Help also is available by testing 838255 or visiting the Veterans Crisis Line webpage.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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