Advocates say thousands of sailors stuck in limbo contribute to the Navy’s high suicide rate
The Navy continues to search for underlying causes behind the services’ high rate of suicide. Advocates say clusters of sailors on limited duty fuel hopelessness that can lead people to take their own lives.
“I kind of figured after a stint at the hospital, that he was on the rebound and he was going to be all right,” said Robert Decker, as he talked about his son Kody, who died by suicide in October. His father talked to him only hours before the 22 year old sailor’s death.
“I did not know right up to the day,” Decker said. “I actually had lunch with him and his wife and my grandson that day. And, I hugged him, said, “I love you” like I always do.”
Kody was one of four sailors assigned to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center in Norfolk, who died by suicide late last year. Last summer he checked himself into the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth with symptoms of depression. He was removed from his ship, the USS Bataan, and placed on limited duty at MARMC.
“MARMC was the dumping ground for “Limdu” sailors, limited duty sailors. He would muster in the morning he'd go sit in his car. That's what he did,” said Decker.
While on duty, his son would watch videos and call his family, Decker said, sitting at the kitchen table of the family’s home in Chesapeake.
“Yeah, he's sitting in the car. Until it's time to go home,” he said. “That was the answer to my son. Who needed help. There was no help.”
Sometimes Kody would talk to other sailors who were also on limited duty. They were going to doctors appointments -waiting until they were again eligible to go back to their ships or, in other cases, be released from the Navy, Decker said.
At times, roughly 6 percent of sailors are non deployable - meaning they can’t be assigned to ships. Instead, the Navy places them on limited duty with a shore command, says Bryan Clark, a retired Navy commander and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
“There is no place for these guys to go,” Clark said. “They’re just basically, on paper, assigning these guys to an appropriate unit, but they’re just floating around. Having that lack of structure is probably not a good situation. I’m sure it contributes to these guys' deterioration of mental health.”
Clark says programs that were stood up during 20 years of war are being cut. Naval Health Research Center and Naval Medical Center San Diego released a study published in the November 2022 issue of Military Medicine, which found the number of sailors and Marines on limited duty is rising from 2017 to 2019. More than a third of the Navy’s cases involve mental health issues.
Kayla Arestivo is a private counselor who runs Trails of Purpose. She was invited to a mental health stand down on base, after the four sailors died. She learned there were hundreds of sailors on limited duty at the same command at MARMC.
“That was one of the biggest flags that I raised, is like, why do we have 500 limited duty sailors in one spot? Talk about a toxic work environment,” she said.
Thousands of sailors are in the process of leaving the Navy for medical reasons. A process that can take over a year, Arestivo said.
“I would love to expedite the med board process. That thing can take 18 months, and that's a long time of just sitting around in limbo,” she said.
More than half of all new limited duty cases are clustered around just four large Navy hospitals - Naval Medical Center San Diego 18%; Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton north of San Diego 14%; Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, outside Norfolk 13%; and Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune, North Carolina 12%, according to the Navy study.
Arestivo says she was told there were other shore commands in the Norfolk area with dozens of sailors on limited duty.
“We have to provide some place where they can stay. I get that. But is this a holding pen rather than like, we're putting you here because we want to care for you and this is how we're going to care for you,” she said.
Arestivo says each person should be assigned someone so they don’t get lost in the cracks while they’re on limited duty.
The percentage of people who died by suicide in the US was 13.42 per 100,000 people in 2020, compared to 19 percent in the Navy. Though the number for the Navy came down slightly in 2021, the overall rate of suicide in the military has remained stubbornly high for two decades.
At the beginning of Apirl, Rear Admiral Eric Ver Hage, who oversees the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center, spoke publicly for the first time about suicides in response to a question at the Sea Air Space Conference in Washington DC.
“That's really been underpinning our leadership approach to responding, he said. “Are they financially healthy? How about, do they feel valued? Are they getting the right medical care, if appropriate?”
In the meantime, the Navy’s report on the deaths of the four sailors at the maintenance center in Norfolk is due later this year.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis you can contact the Crisis Line at 988. If you’re a veteran, Press 1, or text 838255