NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Virginia. — On Navy ships docked at this vast base, hundreds of sailors in below-deck mazes of windowless passageways perform intense, often monotonous manual labor. It's necessary work before a ship deploys, but hard to adjust to for many already challenged by the stresses plaguing young adults nationwide.
Growing mental health distress in the ranks carries such grave implications that the U.S. chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, answered “suicides” when asked earlier this year what in the security environment kept him up at night.
One recently embraced prevention strategy is to deploy chaplains as regular members of the crew on more ships. The goal is for the clergy to connect with sailors, believers and non-believers alike, in complete confidentiality – something that has allowed several to talk sailors out of suicidal crises.
“That makes us accessible as a relief valve,” said Capt. David Thames, an Episcopal priest who’s responsible for chaplains for the Navy’s surface fleet in the Atlantic, covering 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 as part of a larger effort to facilitate access to mental health care without stigma or retaliation. But they also insist on accountability and a chain of command committed to eliminating bullying and engaging younger generations.
“A chaplain could help, but it wouldn’t matter if you don’t empower them,” said Patrick Caserta, a former Navy recruiter. His son Brandon was 21 when he killed himself in 2018, after struggling with depression and being “told to suck it up and go back to work.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story includes discussion of suicide. The national suicide and crisis lifeline is available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.org
Mental health problems, especially among enlisted men under 29, mirror concerns in schools and colleges, which are also increasingly tapping campus ministry for counseling. The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated depression and anxiety for many.
But chaplains, civilian counselors, families of suicide victims, and sailors from commodores to the newly enlisted say these struggles pose unique challenges and security implications in the military, where suicides have risen for most of the past decade and took the lives of 519 service members in 2021, per the latest Department of Defense data.
“Adjustment disorder” is the most common mental health diagnosis among sailors, Gilday said Wednesday at a budget hearing of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee. He asked to invest in chaplains and others onboard who can help “separate life stress from mental illness” and get sailors “at the tactical edge” the right care.
“Mental health permeates every aspect of our operations,” Capt. Blair Guy, commodore for one of the destroyer squadrons based in Norfolk, said via email. "Enhancing spiritual readiness enhances operations, it is not an either or discussion.”
His squadron’s lead chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Madison Carter, is working on recruiting others for the three ships still without permanent chaplains. In the next two years, leaders hope to have 47 chaplains on ships based in Norfolk, up from 37 today. Previously, chaplains — who are both naval officers and clergy from various denominations — were routinely deployed only on the largest aircraft carriers that have up to 5,000 personnel.
Carter, a Baptist pastor, said most of his talks with sailors involve not faith but life struggles that can make them feel unfulfilled and lose focus.
“How do I make sure that you have mind, body and soul all locked in?” is the question that drives his mission.
The very real prospect of killing or being killed in combat provokes “God-sized questions,” in Thames’ words. He joined the Navy after 9/11 and served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sailors can carry the routine angst of teens and young adults, from political polarization to breakups to broken homes, which some enlist to escape. But onboard, disconnected from their real and virtual networks, they lack the usual coping mechanisms, said Jochebed Swilley, a civilian social worker who collaborates with chaplains and medical staff aboard the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship.
Most communications are off-limits at sea for security – lest a Russian frigate show up while you’re texting mom, Thames said he explains to digital-native sailors.
“Eighteen to 21-year-olds don’t know life without smartphones,” said Kayla Arestivo, a counselor and advocate for service members and veterans whose nonprofit serves more than 100 of them each week on her horse farm near Norfolk. “If you remove a sense of connection, mental health plummets.”
Chief Legalman Florian Morrison, who’s served on the Bataan for more than two years tackling mental health cases at the ship’s legal office and as a lay leader for other Christian sailors, said faith is what helped him “re-center” after losing three shipmates to suicide.
“It can be overwhelming... if you feel alone and you’ve nobody to reach out to,” Morrison said in the chapel set up in the ship’s bow. “You’ve got to catch it before you start going down that path. A streamlined pathway to mental health would help.”
Petty Officer 3rd Class Benjamin Dumas, 21, who’s served for two months on the USS Gravely, a destroyer, hopes to become a nondenominational Christian lay leader to help the ship’s more than 300 other sailors navigate anxiety and depression.
“I’ve seen a lot of brokenness,” he said.
Even docked, ships are far from stress-free, as sailors constantly navigate steep ladderwells and pressurized, hulking doors under the glare of fluorescent lights and the constant hum of machinery.
Berths can be stacked four people high and pieces of gear protrude ubiquitously. Space is so tight and regimented that a challenge across the fleet is where to squeeze in offices for new chaplains, said Cmdr. Hunter Washburn, the Gravely’s commanding officer.
His crew looks forward to getting a permanent chaplain later this year who can interact “eyeball to eyeball, to check in and see how they’re doing," Washburn said.
A Navy chaplain’s role is akin to a life coach, helping young sailors find their footing as adults in an environment that looks far more different from the civilian world than it did in previous generations.
“A lot haven’t found that grounding yet. They’re looking,” said Lt. Greg Johnson, a Baptist chaplain who joined the Bataan in December. “A lot of people have resiliency. They just don’t know how to tap into it.”
In the Navy, clergy need to engage with people of different or even no faith who might be initially turned off by the cross or other religious symbols on their uniforms — something that new chaplains need to be ready for if the effort to place more of them on ships is to succeed.
“I want the people who can be uncomfortable and still be the bearers of God’s presence,” Carter said.
Sailors call them “deck-plating chaps” — chaplains striking up a conversation with their shipmates in the mess decks or during night watches, in addition to keeping an open-door policy at all hours.
“They’re accustomed to me making the rounds," said Thames. "I’m going to find them when they’re eating meals, or it’s 3 a.m. and we’re making a high-risk transit through Hormuz,” a geopolitically crucial strait in the Middle East.
Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Rice, a Pentecostal chaplain serving a destroyer squadron at Norfolk, estimates he did 7,000 hours of counseling over 12 years. Long lines of sailors waiting to talk often formed outside his door.
“They’re grinding on a ship or serving food on a mess line, that’s not what they expected. So we help to find their meaning and purpose,” Rice said. “When their life is not going the way they think it should be going, I’ll be blunt and ask, ‘Why haven’t you killed yourself?’”
Focusing on the answers — the “anchors” to the sailors’ will to survive — has helped Rice talk some down from the ledge, including one sailor who knocked on his door crying that he wanted to live and a corpsman who, while discussing suicide dreams, suddenly cocked his weapon and told Rice, “I could do it right now.”
Lt. Cmdr. Ben Garrett has also diffused several suicide situations in the more than a decade he’s been a Catholic chaplain, for the past eight months on the Bataan, which when underway carries 1,000 sailors, 1,600 Marines and three other chaplains. But last fall, he officiated the memorial for a suicide victim.
“There were sailors in the rafters,” he recalled. “It affects the whole crew.”
Most profoundly, suicide impacts surviving families. Kody Decker was 22 and a new father when he killed himself at a maintenance facility in Norfolk, where he was transferred after struggling with depression on the Bataan, according to his father, Robert Decker.
“He wanted to give to his country,” the father said at his home a dozen miles from the base. Pictures of Kody, his older brother and their grandfather — all in their Navy uniforms — rest on the mantelpiece next to the folded flag from Kody’s funeral.
Robert Decker, a high school teacher and football coach, believes Kody might still be alive if he had better access to mental health care instead of being put on limited duty and deprived of his sense of purpose while assigned menial tasks.
He’s not sure if talking to a chaplain would have made a difference with Kody, though speedy implementation of the Brandon Act might have. The bill, named after the Casertas’ son, aims to improve the process for mental health evaluations for service members.
But Decker hasn’t given up on either the Navy or God.
“My whole fight is about 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’s hard.”