At least four U.S. Navy sailors assigned to the same facility in Virginia died by suicide in the last few weeks, including one as recently as Saturday, military officials and family members said.
It is the latest cluster of Navy suicides this year to spark concerns of a fleetwide mental health crisis.
The four sailors worked for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center (MARMC), which maintains military ships and is based in Norfolk, Virginia.
“I was inundated with the amount of hopelessness at that command,” said Kayla Arestivo, a licensed counselor who was brought in two weeks ago to help the sailors in the unit.
Many MARMC sailors have been struggling with personal issues that were exacerbated by a lack of mental health resources on the job and feeling overworked and undervalued by their leaders, according to a sailor who spoke with NBC News and Arestivo, who recently led four suicide prevention sessions at the site.
“Part of it is toxic leadership. The sailors immediately pointed that out,” Arestivo said.
Of the roughly 3,000 people assigned to MARMC, many are on limited duty because they either have mental or physical disabilities or are dealing with personal circumstantial stressors that are preventing them from full unrestricted duty, Arestivo said.
Arestivo said the Navy should have recognized those challenges for the whole unit and provided help earlier on.
“Right away, we should know these people are in higher need, under higher stress,” said Arestivo, who is also the co-founder and president of Trails of Purpose, a nonprofit that provides free mental health care to service members.
‘It doesn’t need to be this way’
Kody Lee Decker, 22, of Virginia, was on limited duty due to mental health issues when he took his own life on Oct. 29, according to a sailor close to Decker, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
The electronics technician’s struggles began in early 2020 while he was serving the USS Bataan and dealing with “toxic leadership” on the amphibious assault ship, the sailor said.
The sailor said Decker’s mental health worsened once he was transferred in August to MARMC, where his work conditions did not improve and he did not receive psychological help.
“If he had come to MARMC and they actually acted like they gave a s— and provided resources and followed up, I do not think we would be sitting here having this conversation,” the sailor said.
Decker, remembered for his outgoing personality and his love of high-end sneakers, had just become a father about nine months before his death.
“More kids are going to lose their parents. More people are going to lose their spouses, unnecessarily,” the sailor said. “It doesn’t need to be this way.”
Exactly one week later, on Nov. 5, Cameron Armstrong died by suicide, his mother, Sharon, said.
Armstrong, 22, was nearing the end of his contract with the Navy after four years, his family and friends said.
He had told his mother that he was feeling depressed, but she said she did not know the extent of his suffering.
“I didn’t think it was that bad. I don’t know what he was going through to do that,” she said.
Sharon said her son, who she called a “goodhearted soul,” leaves behind his wife, who was his high school sweetheart.
‘We’re putting Band-Aids on bullet holes’
The Navy and local police departments are investigating the circumstances surrounding each death, but military officials said the four deaths have been classified as apparent suicides.
The suicide prevention sessions that Arestivo was brought in for were mandatory to personnel and held twice a day on Nov. 14 and Nov. 16, MARMC and Arestivo said.
More than half of the division attended, Arestivo said. But the efforts, which came after at least two other sailors had already died by suicide, were too late, she said.
And without systematic changes, the counselor said she knew a pair of seminars and other responses, such as suicide awareness emails, would not be enough to prevent more deaths.
A third sailor died by suicide on Nov. 14. He had not attended the suicide prevention session earlier that day but was slated to attend the second one, Arestivo said.
“We’re putting Band-Aids on bullet holes,” she said.
On Nov. 16, she said she relayed that message to MARMC’s commanding officer.
“I said to him, ‘You will have another one.’ I shook his hand and looked him right in the eye,” Arestivo said. “And sure as s—, here we are.”
A fourth sailor died by suicide on Nov. 26.
In a statement, MARMC spokesman Douglas Denzine said chaplains, psychologists and counselors were available, and that leaders were taking a “proactive approach” to support its members, improve mental health and manage stress among sailors.
“One suicide is too many,” Denzine said. “We remain fully engaged with our Sailors and their families to ensure their health and well-being, and to ensure a climate of trust that encourages Sailors to ask for help.”
The latest rash of Navy suicides comes months after three sailors assigned to the USS George Washington killed themselves within a week in April.
Current and former George Washington sailors told NBC News that their struggles were directly related to a culture where seeking help is not met with the necessary resources, as well as nearly uninhabitable living conditions aboard the ship, including constant construction noise that made sleeping impossible and a lack of hot water and electricity.
Since then, parents of sailors who died by suicide have said the Navy has done little to adequately address a fleetwide issue. They also criticized the U.S. military for not yet implementing the Brandon Act, which allows service members to confidentially seek mental health help, nearly one year after it was signed into law.
In a statement, the Defense Department said it would continue working toward implementation by the end of the calendar year.
Named after Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, 21, who died by suicide in 2018, the Brandon Act not only expedites mental health evaluations, but also provides a confidential channel for service members to self-report mental health issues.
Caserta’s parents, Arestivo and military mental health experts said both are critical reforms needed to reduce suicides in the services.
“They’re sitting on it, and these people are dying. And it’s like they don’t care,” Caserta’s father, Patrick, said.
In 2021, the most recent year for which full data is available, 519 service members died by suicide, a slight drop from 580 the year before, according to the Defense Department, which released new suicide figures at the end of October.
Nearly 17 out of every 100,000 Navy sailors died by suicide in 2021, compared to members of the Army, who had the highest rate, at about 36 per 100,000, Pentagon statistics show.
“No one is taking account of all this lost potential,” the sailor who knew Decker said. “There’s so much lost potential. It’s just not going to stop.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.