US Navy deploys more suicide prevention chaplains

NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, Virginia. — On naval ships docked at this vast base, hundreds of seamen perform intense, often monotonous manual labor in labyrinths of windowless corridors belowdecks. It’s necessary work before a ship goes into action, but adapting is difficult for many already challenged by the stress afflicting young adults nationwide.

The growing psychological strain in the ranks is having such a severe impact that US naval operations chief Admiral Michael Gilday replied earlier this year with “suicide” when asked what the security environment was keeping him up at night.

A recently introduced prevention strategy is to have chaplains as regular crew members on more ships. The aim is for the clergy to interact with seafarers, believers and non-believers alike in complete confidentiality.

“That makes us accessible as a relief valve,” Capt. said earlier this month. David Thames, an episcopal priest in charge of pastoral care for the Atlantic Navy’s surface fleet, overseeing dozens of ships from the east coast to Bahrain.

The families of two young men who killed themselves in Norfolk said chaplains could be effective in making mental health care easier to access. But they also insist on accountability and a chain of command dedicated to eliminating bullying and engaging younger generations.

“A chaplain could help, but it wouldn’t matter if you didn’t authorize him,” said Patrick Caserta, a former Navy recruiter whose son Brandon, 21, killed himself in 2018.

PHOTOS: US Navy deploys more suicide prevention chaplains

Mental health issues, particularly among soldiers under the age of 29, reflect concerns in schools and colleges, compounded by the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But chaplains, civilian advisers, families of suicide victims and sailors from commodore to new hires say these battles pose unique challenges and security implications for the military, where suicides claimed 519 serviceman lives in 2021, according to the latest Defense Department data .

“Mental health permeates every aspect of our operations,” Captain Blair Guy, commodore of one of the destroyer squadrons based in Norfolk, said via email.

His squadron’s senior chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Madison Carter is working to recruit three new chaplains who are both naval officers and ministers of various denominations. The Baptist pastor said most of his conversations with seafarers involve not faith but life struggles that can leave them feeling unfulfilled and losing focus.

Seafarers can carry with them the everyday fears of young adults, from political polarization to separations and broken families, some committing to fleeing. On board, disconnected from their real and virtual networks — most communications are off-limits at sea for safety reasons — they lack the usual coping mechanisms, said Jochebed Swilley, a civilian social worker on the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship.

“Eighteen to 21 year olds don’t know life without smartphones,” said Kayla Arestivo, a consultant and advocate whose nonprofit organization helps service members and veterans near Norfolk. “When you remove the sense of connectedness, mental health goes down.”

Chief Legalman Florian Morrison, who has served on the Bataan for more than two years, said faith helped him “re-center” after losing three shipmates to suicide.

“It can be overwhelming…when you feel alone and have no one to turn to,” Morrison said in the chapel set up in the ship’s bow. “A streamlined mental health pathway would help.”

Even docked ships are far from stress-free as sailors constantly navigate steep ladder shafts and pressurized, giant doors under the glaring neon lights and constant hum of engines.

Space is so tight and regimented that a challenge across the fleet is where to accommodate offices for new chaplains, Cmdr. Hunter Washburn, commanding officer of the destroyer USS Gravely.

The role of a Navy chaplain is similar to that of a life coach, helping young seafarers settle into adulthood in an environment far more different from the civilian world than previous generations.

“Many have not yet found this grounding. They’re looking,” said Lt. Greg Johnson, a Baptist minister who joined the Bataan in December.

Clergy have to deal with people of other or no faith, who may be initially put off by the cross or other religious symbols on their uniforms.

“I want the people who can be uncomfortable and yet be vehicles of God’s presence,” Carter said.

Sailors call them “deck-plating chaps” – chaplains who strike up conversations with their shipmates on the mess decks or during the night watch, in addition to maintaining an open-door policy at all times.

Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Rice, a Pentecostal minister serving a destroyer squadron in Norfolk, estimates he has provided 7,000 counseling hours in 12 years. Long queues of sailors often formed in front of his door, waiting for a conversation.

“They’re grinding on a ship or serving food at a fair, they didn’t expect that. So we’re helping to find their meaning and purpose,” Rice said. “If their lives aren’t going the way they think they should, I’m going to be blunt and ask, ‘Why didn’t you kill yourself?'”

Focusing on the answers — the “anchors” for sailors’ will to survive — has helped Rice talk some off the edge, including a medic who, while discussing suicidal dreams, suddenly cocked his gun and Rice said, “I could do it.” create at the moment.”

Lt. Cmdr. Ben Garrett has also solved several suicide cases in the past eight months of his tenure as Catholic chaplain on the Bataan, which carries 1,000 sailors, 1,600 Marines and three other chaplains during the voyage. But last fall he headed the memorial for a suicide victim.

“There were sailors in the rafters,” he recalled. “It affects the whole crew.”

Suicide has the greatest impact on surviving families. Kody Decker was 22 and a new father when he committed suicide at a maintenance facility in Norfolk, where he was transferred on the Bataan after suffering depression, according to his father, Robert Decker.

He’s not sure a chat with a chaplain at Kody would have made a difference, although swift implementation of the Brandon Act might have. The bill, named after the Casertas’ son, aims to improve the mental health assessment process for military personnel.

But Decker hasn’t given up on the Navy or on God.

“My whole struggle is not having other families like us,” he said as a tear rolled down his cheek. “I pray to God every night for help, for healing, for strength. I’m not a quitter. But it is difficult.”

– EDITOR’S NOTE – The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached by phone or text 988. There is also online chat at

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