"The reality is we know what to do": Military culture often sidelines solutions to suicides
John Sandor and Mary Graft, the parents of Seaman Recruit Xavier Mitchell-Sandor, received a text from him minutes before he died.
“He said he was sorry. He tried his hardest, but he can't do it anymore. And he didn't want us to be disappointed. But he just couldn't do it anymore,” Sandor said.
His mother added - “No one should have to live this way.”
In a recent report, the Navy detailed the last days of three sailors who died by suicide a year ago on board the USS George Washington while the ship underwent maintenance in Newport News.
Mitchell-Sandor, 19, was on his first tour. His superiors knew he was violating policy by driving eight hours to see his parents in Connecticut and family and friends in South Carolina.
He didn’t specifically say he was suicidal, but he returned to the ship heavily sleep deprived, which may have contributed to his death, according to the Navy.
The aircraft carrier had been undergoing an overhaul in Newport News since 2017, making living conditions difficult. That was especially for sailors like Michell-Sandor, who worked ship security at night and slept during the day.
“They knew he was having trouble with ship life and did nothing about it,” Sandor said. “They knew he was sleeping in his car and did nothing about it. So I feel the command is at fault. The Navy failed him and us as a family.”
Recent suicides highlight a larger problem
The military is awash in studies detailing the risk of suicide among troops, with more on the way. But experts say more work has been put on the shelf than into practice.
The latest report calls for several changes in Navy’s suicide policy, but the Sandor family is afraid the recommendations will go nowhere - a valid fear, says David Rudd, psychology professor at the University of Memphis.
Rudd has been conducting multiple studies on suicide for the miltary for a decade, including current studies with the Army at Fort Carson and the Marines at Camp Pendleton.
“The problem isn't recommendations,” Rudd said. “I mean, the reality is we know what to do. It's not about knowing what to do. It's actually doing it. And implementing it in a military culture is arguably the biggest challenge.”
He points to a 2010 Defense of Department study that looked at suicide throughout the service. It has many of the same recommendations as a study commissioned by the Pentagon earlier this year.
The studies share ideas like better training of support staff, providing easier access to mental health care and lessening the stigma of seeking treatment among troops.
“You've got a divisional commander,” Rudd said “They're only going to be in charge for a couple of years before they move on to another job. So often you can't get continuity about anything, and particularly around clinical care.”
Research, reccommendations gather dust as suicides remain high
For more than two decades, the military has had a higher risk of suicide then the general population.
As the problem persists, the military continues to produce new research. The Air Force is set to release another service-wide study on suicide this summer. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth told Congress in May that the Army is set to release new regulations.
At the same time, a 2023 Army Auditor General’s report says nearly 90 percent of recent Army studies didn’t even include recommendations, says Nick Schwellenbach, with the Project On Government Oversight, which uncovered the report.
“My jaw dropped a bit because the harmful behaviors addressed involve suicide, sexual assault, sexual harassment, drug use, domestic violence,” he said.
In the report, the Army couldn’t answer why there hadn’t been better follow through on dozens of Army research studies. Instead, the Auditor General noted there were previous audits going back more than a decade that also urged the branch to make better use of its existing data.
“We may have people who are literally losing their lives because research is gathering dust somewhere or people aren't aware of the research or recommendations coming out of that research are ignored. So there are real consequences here,” Schwellenbach said.
Instead, families often look to Congress. Xavier Mitchell-Sandor’s family is supporting legislation to improve living conditions for sailors aboard ships in maintenance.
Congressman Bobby Scott’s district covers the shipyard in Newport News where Mitchell-Sandor was one of four sailors who died by suicide in roughly one months’ time last year. He’s seen several bills filed since the rash of suicides were made public.
“We need to address the underlying causes and we need to make sure that those who are in particular stress get the care that they need,” Scott said. “We cannot accept the number of suicides in the Navy.”
Scott is co-sponsoring a separate bill that would require the Navy to have a trained mental health professional for units which have 15 or more sailors on limited duty.
He expects the language to tackle suicide will be included in the national defense bill, currently moving through the House.