The Navy is dealing with another cluster of suicides in Norfolk, Virginia, with a four sailors having died by suicide at the Navy's Naval Maintenance Center in just over a month according to NBC News. Three deaths had previously been reported with the fourth occuring last week.
A lawmaker said Friday that those deaths have happened while the military has been slow to implement legislation meant to provide resources that would help prevent suicides.
The Navy confirmed the four deaths and released the names of the sailors but is currently classifying them as suspected suicides.
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Congressman Seth Moulton, D-Mass., said that key provisions of the Brandon Act, passed last year and named for Brandon Caserta who died via suicide in 2018, still aren’t in place in the military services. The legislation aimed to give service members easier access to mental health treatment.
"I was assured many months ago that the law was well on its way to being implemented," Moulton said in a press release. "It is beyond me why this policy has yet to be implemented."
In late November, the Virginian-Pilot first reported that three suicides had taken place at the Navy's Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center, located at Naval Station Norfolk, over the prior few weeks. Those suicides were confirmed by Virginia's two senators -- Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.
Lt. Cmdr. Rochelle Rieger, a spokeswoman for the command, confirmed the names and dates of death for the sailors, including the fourth who died last week, in a Friday phone call with Military.com.
Kody Decker, from Virginia, died on Oct. 29; Cameron Armstrong, from Florida, died on Nov. 5; Deonte Autry, from North Carolina, died on Nov. 14; and Janelle Holder, from North Carolina, died on Nov. 26.
In an email, Rieger said that "the circumstances surrounding these separate incidents are currently under investigation by local police departments and the U.S. Navy," but also added that "one suicide is too many" and that the command's leadership "is taking a proactive approach to support the team, improve mental fitness, and manage the stress of its Sailors."
The maintenance facility is a unique command, made up of both civilian and military personnel with many of its sailors not on permanent assignment.
According to Rieger, out of the roughly 3,000 people at the center, anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 are sailors. Out of that figure, about 400 to 600 sailors are there on humanitarian orders, pregnancy or postpartum status, or limited duty, the spokeswoman added. Sailors on limited duty are granted that status by medical professionals for anything from broken bones to mental health.
The four suicides come only months after Military.com first revealed that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which is undergoing a massive, years-long overhaul just across the James River at the Newport News Shipyard, had a spate of suicides.
Sailors who spoke to Military.com pointed to brutal living conditions aboard the ship and hour-long commutes as being drivers of low morale on the ship.
Almost a month after the most recent suicide on that ship, Navy leaders admitted having the crew live aboard while the ship was an active construction zone was a mistake.
The Brandon Act, the legislation that Moulton said hadn't fully been put into action yet, came after its namesake, a 21-year-old aircrew aviation electrician's mate striker, died in 2018. Caserta was stationed at Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 in Norfolk, Virginia. A command investigation into his death found that not only did his unit fail to prevent the young sailor's lead petty officer from tormenting him, but leaders actively prevented him from transferring out of the unit.
Following lobbying by Caserta's parents, the legislation was passed last year with the aim of making it easier for troops in branches to trigger a mental health evaluation and requiring that commanders make it happen.
However, the Pentagon admits it's still working to roll out the measure.
"We're still collaborating across multiple components to review and inform that policy for those self-initiated referrals and to enable successful implementation upon release," the office of the Secretary of Defense said in a statement.
A congressional staffer with Moulton's office told Military.com that part of the delay with implementation is related to bureaucracy within the Pentagon and the fact that each service has to figure out how to implement the policy for themselves, accounting for situations where service members may be deployed, on ships, or in remote locations. The staffer added that once fully implemented, it's possible that the changes brought on by the Brandon Act will vary considerably, depending on the service.
Moulton says he "will be demanding answers."
"When young people sign up to serve, they and their families accept a certain level of risk," the congressman said. "Dying by suicide while on active duty should under no circumstances be one of those risks."
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-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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