Navy desertions more than doubled amid suicide concerns


CORONADO, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 18: U.S. Navy sailors fold the flag on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) aircraft carrier on January 18, 2020 in Coronado, California. The USS Nimitz is currently conducting routine operations and training at sea. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier holds a flight deck area of 4.5 acres and can hold 65 aircraft along with nearly 5,000 total personnel. It is the oldest U.S. Navy carrier in active service and was commissioned on May 3, 1975. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — The dissatisfaction of U.S. Navy sailors is reflected in a record number of desertions and a string of suicides that has rocked the military branch to its core.

Many of the sailors NewsNation spoke to shared how tough life at sea is on their physical and mental health.

They continually face harsh conditions and isolation from family and loved ones, they said.

During basic training, sailors learn what it takes to be “warrior tough.” But it’s more than just being physically ready for warfare.

“It is not only your body, but also your mind and also your spirit,” said Navy Chaplain Lt. Lee Yi.

Chaplain Yi serves on the USS Nimitz and is a spiritual leader for those needing counsel and advice.

He often talks to sailors coping with the pressures of their jobs and long deployments at sea.

Over the last three years, a growing number of sailors have deserted their post. And five sailors committed suicide on the USS George Washington last year — three within the same week of each other last month.

The number of sailors who deserted the Navy more than doubled from 2019 to 2021.

  • 2021: 157
  • 2020: 98
  • 2019: 63

Source: U.S. Navy

The men and women on the USS George Washington complained of uninhabitable living conditions and low morale.

NewsNation talked with Rear Adm. Christopher Sweeney on how the Navy can better protect its sailors.

He said it’s about continually reinforcing each person’s importance to ship, fleet and country.

“Trust us, because we are going to hold ourselves accountable, institutionally,” Sweeney said. We are going to get to the bottom of what went wrong and we are going to fix it.”

Aboard the USS Nimitz there are three chaplains, a resilience counselor, and a psychiatrist. They’re trained to speak to suicidal sailors.

Chaplain Yi said it’s important to validate their struggles and reassure them of their purpose, restoring the mind and spirit to regain warrior toughness.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that they again have the resources they need,” Yi said. “They can come to us, they can talk to us.”

Last week, high-ranking Navy officials met with Congress to discuss the ongoing suicide crisis.

They spoke of long wait times for mental health services, often averaging out to more than a month of waiting.

The Pentagon has created a new committee aimed at preventing suicides and will review current mental health policies to provide a comprehensive report back to Washington in February.

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