Senator, Secretary of the Navy Says Sailors Need More Mental Health Help

Navy leaders and congressional representatives pledge to address the service’s lingering mental health problems, which have been punctuated by a recent suicide crisis, after a tour of a facility where four sailors died by suicide in just over a month.

Lawmakers point to a 2021 law that was supposed to provide help and ask why it hasn’t been fully implemented by the Pentagon.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Congressman Bobby Scott, D-Va., visited the Naval Maintenance Center in Norfolk, Va., on Tuesday with Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro in an effort to understand better because the unit suffered a wave of suicides in November 2022.

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Kaine, speaking to reporters after the tour, said del Toro recognized that more needs to be done for sailors.

“Maybe we owe you something better and more than what we’re providing right now,” Kaine Del Toro told Sailors.

Aside from the four suicides at the maintenance center, the Navy has not disclosed a string of suicides aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which is in the final months of a years-long overhaul at a Virginia shipyard. The last known suicide aboard that ship occurred in April 2022.

The Navy’s two top sailors recently said the service’s suicide problem is keeping them up at night.

Kaine linked the two suicide groups by explaining that both commands have large contingents of sailors who don’t have a clear understanding of their purpose in the Navy.

In the case of the aircraft carrier, the senator, as well as sailors who spoke to, described a day-to-day existence far removed from what they expected from their service.

“You thought you were probably going to do something in the water, then you’re in a very different situation, and it’s a noisy construction site — not, maybe, what you thought it was,” Kaine explained.

“This can sometimes lead to a bit of a sense of ‘What is my purpose?'”

Meanwhile, the maintenance center has a large contingent of Sailors — 400 to 600 out of about 1,500 — who are there on non-permanent orders, including Sailors on humanitarian orders, pregnant or postpartum status, or limited duty.

“There’s a group of people there…they don’t know, they’re there for a year, they’re there for three years? What’s the next step beyond that?” Kaine said.

The senator suggested that both the ratio of sailors “who may be working in a command with limited service status” and the time it takes for someone to get a medical appointment for mental health issues could be part of the solution.

Kaine also highlighted an issue that others in Congress have pointed out: the fact that a key piece of legislation aimed at providing service members with easier access to mental health treatment has yet to be implemented.

The Brandon Act, named after Brandon Caserta, who died by suicide in 2018, passed last year but has not yet been implemented by the military services.

Kaine attributed the delay to a tension between the Pentagon and key provisions of the law designed to allow service members to confidentially seek mental health help.

“Do we want to provide more private routes, or do we want to make it more normal to just talk about it?” Kaine said, adding that “these things can be sort of [cross] purposes sometimes in terms of how you implement them.” reported the case of a sailor who, while seeking help for his mood disorder, underwent a drug test that came back positive for cannabinoids, the family of drugs associated with marijuana. The sailor denied using any substances, but the results were still brought back to his ship by his doctor and he was convicted of drug use.

Kaine said that he has “seen this movie before – let’s do something good … now we just have to stick with it; to make sure it gets implemented in the spirit it was intended.”

The senator added that implementing the law “will be my focus this year in the NDAA.” By then, the Brandon Act will be approaching three years.

Speaking to sailors at the maintenance center, del Toro had a simpler message: “I need you to take care of each other.

“Talk to each other, find out what you’re struggling with,” del Toro said, according to a transcript provided by the Navy to

“Let me assure you this is family – it is. I’m speaking from experience.”

— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: What the deaths of the sailors who took their own lives aboard the George Washington reveal about the Navy

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