Adm. Daryl Caudle, who oversees most of the Navy's East Coast forces, said this week that he wants sailors to know that their mental health is important and that the service has resources available to help them deal with the stress of military service.
"I think it's important for the sailors on the waterfront to know that the folks at my level, at the fleet master chief level, care a lot about their welfare," Caudle told reporters at a press conference Monday at Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, dedicated to Suicide Prevention Month.
However, Caudle struggled to explain recent reports that seem to show sailors are struggling to actually make use of those resources -- such as the newly enacted Brandon Act -- and he conceded that the Navy still needs to address a culture that has led the service's junior members to distrust that help.
Reporters at the press conference cited recent reporting by local TV station 13News Now that detailed the story of Marine Lance Cpl. Alex Grzesik who had mental health issues aboard the USS Carter Hall, a ship currently deployed to the Middle East, according to audio of the event obtained by Military.com.
The news station reported that Grzesik suffered for weeks and invoked the Brandon Act -- a new law that is supposed to allow sailors and Marines to confidentially seek help for any reason, at any time and in any environment -- several times but was denied help by his bosses.
It wasn't until his story became public that he was flown off the ship to receive help.
"We as a chain of command failed there," Caudle conceded.
Part of Caudle's broader message is that Navy enlisted leaders, especially chief petty officers and leading first-class petty officers, are deeply involved in their sailors' lives. "They need to know where they live, their family members, their kids' names, their financial situation," Caudle said.
To him, and many of the Navy's top leadership, this approach -- which has been pushed for several years now -- enables the people that interact with the most at-risk sailors to act quickly and immediately to offer help.
"I want [sailors] to hear from the top ... to make sure that they have the confidence they need, the families have that confidence, that we are aware of the stresses that they're under, the challenges that they're under, and make sure that they are completely aware of some of the things that are available to them to help them," Caudle said.
However, in Grzesik's case, "that was not good judgment," Caudle said.
It is far from the only instance of a sailor struggling to get mental health help, to no avail.
A Navy investigation into a suicide cluster of four at a Norfolk-based maintenance center -- a unit just minutes from Caudle's headquarters -- found that the command didn't offer even basic suicide prevention measures despite the fact that around a third of its sailors were there because they were experiencing some sort of medical issue or event.
Caudle stressed that his commanders "should be able to very clearly describe" any number of ways that they are getting the suicide prevention awareness message to their junior sailors.
"This is a full-court-press, all-hands-on-deck approach," he added.
Despite the effort, though, the Navy is continuing to face reports of harsh working conditions and unsympathetic supervisors. One reporter at the press conference mentioned that a sailor aboard the USS George Washington -- the ship that drew the national spotlight onto the service and its struggle with suicide following Military.com's reporting -- described some sailors being overworked, not having time to eat and getting only two or three hours of sleep a night.
Caudle seemed to be unaware of the conditions and said it was "something I would need to look into," but he described the possibility as "troubling."
However, the admiral struggled to offer much hope for the ship, which left the shipyards last spring after a grueling six-year maintenance period.
"The aftermath of coming out of the yards like the George Washington is also very stressful," Caudle said, citing sea trials and underway examinations that typically follow ship retrofits.
Fleet Master Chief John Perryman, the Navy's top enlisted sailor for Fleet Forces Command, told reporters that through his time in the Navy, the service added a lot of requirements onto sailors -- requirements that he suggested the Navy should reexamine and "get rid of the ones that are extraneous."
"We ask our commands to do a lot of things, and it impacts their ability to plan effectively and manage their sailors' time," which all adds friction and degrades quality of life, Perryman added.
Quality-of-life issues also include a government watchdog report released last week that revealed that about 5,000 sailors have been living in substandard barracks with problems such as lack of air conditioning, insect infestation, mold and sewage issues.
The results of stress on the fleet are also apparent. Navy-wide data shows that in 2022, the Navy had 70 active-duty sailors die by suicide -- the second-highest figure since 2006. In 2023, the service says it has confirmed 41 so far.
Caudle did offer several hopeful developments for sailors.
He noted that the investigations that were prompted by the suicide cluster aboard the George Washington have led the Navy to ask what the standard for a sailor's quality of life and work requirements looks like and a "cross-functional team" is looking into the issue.
The four-star admiral also said that the service is looking to get Wi-Fi service into some of its barracks, and it is moving forward with at least three parking deck initiatives for the Newport News, Va., shipyard area.
Hourlong commutes and a lack of parking were among the chief complaints that sailors raised in the wake of the George Washington suicides.
Caudle said those parking decks were likely to be built in three to five years.
"I recognize that we're on that journey," Caudle said, speaking about the service's push to get sailors the mental health resources they need.
"Until that gets embedded and inculcated into the fabric, into the culture of our team, then we're going to have some ... reluctance, a little bit of pushback, from our sailors to trust that," he said.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X at @ktoropin.