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    Sailor suicides spark effort to change Navy’s mental health culture: ‘God forbid more families have to go through this.’
    • October 20, 2023

    Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts about suicide, please contact the national suicide and crisis lifeline by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at

    Kody Decker’s Navy service began in 2018 with excitement and anticipation for the future.

    “Look at his smiling face,” said Kody’s father, Robert Decker, motioning to a framed photo in his Chesapeake home. “That was during boot camp. The kid was very excited.”

    A tri-folded flag given to the family at Kody Decker’s funeral now sits on the mantel in the living room. Next week, Oct. 29, will be the anniversary of the 22-year-old’s death.

    A wave of suicides among sailors has brought the tides of change to the Navy. The service is undertaking a massive effort to change the way it treats sailors experiencing mental health crises.

    “I am often asked what keeps me up at night,” said Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces. “The answer is the health and welfare of our sailors. There is nothing more impactful to the Navy than to lose one of our own through suicide.”

    Fleet Forces, at Naval Station Norfolk, has taken the lead of the Navy’s cultural shift following another year of elevated sailor suicides, which came in at 79 across the service last year, according to Defense Department data. The count represents a 14.5% increase from 69 suicides in 2021. The highest tally in recent previous years was 80 suicides in 2019, and the lowest was 62 in 2016. This includes active and reserve members.

    “There’s a difference seeking help for a broken leg and seeking mental health — let’s face it,” Caudle said.

    The stigma of seeking help for mental health is not unique to the Navy. It is a reality of society.

    Around 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness, according to a 2021 study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But less than half receive treatment. The stigma of seeking help is often a barrier to care. This can include public perceptions, discriminatory behavior, labeling and fear of reprisal in the workplace.

    It is a barrier, Caudle said, the Navy is working to lower.

    “I know it’s hard to ask for help when you are struggling, but suffering in silence is certainly not the answer,” Caudle said in a message to sailors during a recent suicide prevention event. “Seeking help is an act of strength, not weakness.”

    Suicide, the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found, is more common among men aged 18-25 — the primary demographic starting a Navy career.

    While the Navy’s suicide rates are comparable to those in the general male population, suicide clusters among sailors linked to the same command have brought the service under scrutiny in recent years.

    At least seven of the sailors who died by suicide in 2022 were assigned to two Hampton Roads-based installations — the USS George Washington and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center.

    Kody Decker, an electronics technician, served aboard the USS Bataan based out of Naval Station Norfolk from December 2019 to August 2022. He was subsequently diagnosed with adjustment disorder and reported to the Norfolk maintenance center on limited duty.

    He died by suicide two months later on Oct. 29.


    ‘Getting help was frowned upon’

    Decker’s family and a sailor who knew him said he was targeted by leadership for requesting time off. The bullying worsened, they said, when he sought mental health treatment on Aug. 1, 2022.

    “First, it was public and indirect — kind of like throwing shade — but it was in the air,” said a former sailor, who agreed to be interviewed by The Virginian-Pilot on the condition of anonymity because he fears reprisal.

    The former sailor, who was assigned to the Bataan from 2020 to 2022, said leadership eventually became comfortable speaking more directly about Kody Decker, even talking about him around other junior sailors.

    “They thought he was using what he was going through and all the appointments as a way out of work,” the former sailor said.

    A portrait of Kody Decker, a 22-year-old sailor who died by suicide in 2022, sits on the mantel in the Decker’s Chesapeake family home on April 12. (Stephen Katz / The Virginian-Pilot)

    A Navy investigation into Decker’s death reported the climate in his department on the Bataan was a contributing factor to his mental health stressors. According to the investigation report released in May, sailors described the command as “high operational tempo” even when the ship was in port with no time off.

    The suicide investigation did not look into whether Decker was the target of hazing or unfair treatment while he was assigned to the Bataan, said Lt. Cmdr. David Carter, public affairs officer for Naval Surface Force Atlantic.

    But the investigation did explore if Decker was targeted while at the Norfolk maintenance center where he was assigned when he died. No evidence of hazing was found. The investigation did not define hazing or unfair treatment.

    Both expectant parents in late 2021, the former sailor and Decker had grown close at work and in their personal lives.

    “We quickly became close friends, brothers even,” the former sailor said.

    Working in the same department, the former sailor witnessed many of Decker’s interactions with leadership aboard the Bataan. And given their personal relationship, the two often vented to one another.

    “We never had leadership. We had a chain of command. It’s like having a boss and a leader — two totally different things,” the friend said.

    The former sailor said Decker was stressed about missing the birth of his son in January 2022. As the due date approached, Decker asked a chief about beginning paternity leave. The chief’s response, the friend said, was that Decker would not begin leave until his wife “was on the table with her legs open, giving birth.”

    The remark, the former sailor said, was sickening.

    “Kody was furious. But mentally you succumb to the realization that you have to take it,” his friend said. “It is frustrating, but it is our reality.”

    Snap, emotional responses to harsh leaders were kept in check by a 45-day restriction that could prevent junior sailors under disciplinary action from leaving the ship, the former sailor said. He also said crew members under disciplinary action could have their common access cards confiscated by the department chief. This prevented sailors from accessing email while underway and meant they were unable to contact family unless the chief gave them permission to do so.

    The sailor’s allegation, Naval Surface Force Atlantic said, is not consistent with the Bataan’s official policy. From 2020 to 2022, only the commanding officer, via nonjudicial punishment or for pretrial restraint, could impose restrictions on crew members in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Manual for Courts-Martial. At the time, the security department was authorized to confiscate the common access cards of crew members on restriction, as ordered by the commanding officer. But in August 2022, the command’s restriction policy was updated in accordance with Department of Defense policy to remove any and all authority to confiscate the access cards of crew members on restriction.

    The former sailor said Decker expressed he was “beyond stressed” due to leadership aboard the Bataan during conversations spanning about eight months. And on Aug. 1, Decker requested mental health treatment from the ship’s medical team. Decker told the medical team he was not experiencing suicidal thoughts at the time, the Navy’s investigation reports.

    “Getting help was frowned upon, to say the least. If you needed signatures to take time off for an appointment, the higher ranking chiefs or officers in charge have a condescending attitude, like a personal grudge against you,” the former sailor said.

    Decker turned to his dad, Robert Decker, for guidance on how to work with difficult leaders. 

    “I told him, if you have got bad leadership, you just keep your head down, you keep grinding. You do your job and you go home,” Robert Decker said.

    But his father was unaware of how bad things were.

    “But I didn’t know. I did not fully understand,” Robert Decker quietly said. His gaze lingered on his son’s smiling portrait from boot camp atop the mantel.

    The ship’s medical officer planned to enter a referral for a mental health appointment for Kody Decker, according to the Navy’s investigation. The report does not say if that referral was ever put in the system. On Aug. 10, Kody Decker drove himself to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. He was admitted for an inpatient mental health evaluation because he was suicidal.

    Kody Decker completed five days of inpatient treatment and on Aug. 31, he reported to the Mid-Atlantic maintenance center on limited duty. Two months later, the Decker family was planning Kody’s funeral.

    “I had lunch with him, his wife and my grandson that day. There were no signs,” Robert Decker said, his words trailing off as he wiped tears from his eyes.

    Following Kody Decker’s death, Robert Decker said he has witnessed the very culture and the deep-seated stigma the Navy is trying to break down.

    “I see the comments and the stories published online. People saying, ‘This generation — what’s wrong with them? They are not tough.’ And I am thinking to myself, they are tough. They are just different,” Robert Decker said.

    Robert Decker, a high school football coach, has learned to approach each kid as an individual, finding out “what makes them tick.” He said the Navy should follow suit.

    “The way I coached in ’91, I cannot coach today. It was hardcore. It was in-your-face intense. You do that to these kids today and they are shutting down,” Robert Decker said. “I understand the Navy — and the military — is a war machine. But you cannot take a blanket way of doing things and think that you are going to get the best out of them.”


    Moving away from ‘do as I say or else’

    In April 2022, three sailors connected to the USS George Washington died by suicide within a week while the carrier was undergoing an extended overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding. Less than eight months later, the Norfolk-based Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center reported four suicides within 28 days.

    In May 2022, the Department of Defense established the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee. The committee was comprised of 10 subject matter experts and military veterans, who explored how to prevent suicide among service members.

    The committee found that the younger generation, ages 18-25, have different motivations to work and expectations of their employers. They prefer open communication and continuous feedback, quick responses to questions, have an urgent sense of immediacy and are “unlikely to readily accept organizational policies that limit the sharing of information.”

    This is true of the incoming workforce for the military, the committee’s report says.

    Improving communication across generations is key for the Department of Defense to prevent suicide, the report says. It suggests Navy leaders move away from the “do as I say or else” style of leadership.

    Younger personnel display more openness toward help-seeking and self-disclosure of their struggles. Older personnel, by comparison, were more likely to view help-seeking and self-disclosure of struggles as indicators of low resilience, the report says.

    Fleet Master Chief John Perryman, who enlisted in the Navy in 1994, said he doesn’t think the qualities of a good leader have changed.

    “What has changed is sailors’ willingness to put up with bad leaders,” Perryman said during a recent Fleet Forces meeting with reporters to discuss the Navy’s cultural shift.

    Perryman — alongside Caudle — outlined the Navy’s efforts to tackle the stigma of seeking mental health care and how the service is reinforcing that message to leaders at all levels.

    “The ability to make those decisions on an individual sailor or Marine basis rests on that leader’s ability to really know their sailors and to demonstrate that they really genuinely care about them,” Perryman said.

    But, Perryman said, the Navy has run into senior leaders who “are not comfortable operating in that space.” Those leaders will default to sending that person to medical for mental health treatment or will haphazardly attempt to handle it themselves.

    “If I don’t have a pre-existing relationship with you, why would you trust me to try to help you through whatever difficulties you have?” Perryman said.


    Playbook implores leaders to get personal

    Guiding sailors from the deck plate to the most senior positions are two newly implemented programs: the Brandon Act in May and the Navy’s Mental Health Playbook in February.

    The Brandon Act allows service members to seek help confidentially for any reason at any time and in any environment — in the hope that would prevent the stigma associated with seeking such treatment.

    Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, speaks regarding mental health in the Navy during a press conference at U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk on Sept. 25. (Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot)

    “The Brandon Act legislated what good leadership looks like,” Caudle said. “I think good commands were already doing this.”

    The Mental Health Playbook is meant to educate leaders within any size chain of command by detailing scenarios and outlining possible paths forward. It requires leaders to set conditions by creating a climate of trust and respect with open, two-way communication and encourages them to use empathy and have conversations that go beyond professional performance.

    “But a playbook is not worth the paper it’s written on if we don’t put it into practice,” Caudle said. “And that’s a responsibility throughout the chain of command.”

    Leaders can’t take a hands-off approach where they are more comfortable interacting via emails and text messages, Caudle said.

    “When it comes to the subject we are talking about — mental health — I don’t think that is good enough. That is not even close to being good enough,” Caudle said.

    He wants to see a more personal leadership style become the standard for the Navy, from petty officers to the most senior military officials.

    “They have to actually know their sailors. They need to know where they live, their family members, their kids’ names, their financial situation,” Caudle said, in order to pick up on day-to-day differences a sailor is exhibiting.

    On. Sept. 28, the secretary of defense approved a “5 Lines of Effort” campaign based on the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee’s recommendations that is meant to strengthen the department’s suicide prevention strategy.

    The first line of the effort is to foster a supportive environment by investing in taking care of “people priorities,” improving morale through facilities to enhance quality of life and empowering leaders to improve schedule predictability. The second line is to improve the delivery of mental health care by expanding programs to recruit and retain more mental health professionals and increasing appointment availability. The third line is to address stigma and other barriers to care by expanding nonmedical counseling for suicide prevention, mental health services in primary care and telehealth services for mental health.

    The department plans to fully implement the campaign by the end of fiscal year 2030.


    ‘Talking to me didn’t hurt their career’

    In the meantime, nonmedical resources are available to sailors who are struggling with a mental health crisis, clashing with a leader or just need someone to talk to. These resources are bound by confidentiality and are not logged in a sailor’s file.

    Aboard the USS George Washington, just down the corridor from the aft mess deck where junior enlisted personnel eat and have access to Wi-Fi, is Terrance Levine’s office.

    A sailor holds a sign advertising the hotline number for the suicide and crisis lifeline during a press conference regarding mental health in the Navy at Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk on Sept. 25. (Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot)

    “Hey, how you doing?” Levine says to a sailor in passing during a recent underway.

    Affectionately dubbed Talk Boss, Levine is a deployed resiliency counselor. He reported to the Washington in May after it left Newport News Shipbuilding. Deployed resiliency counselors are civilian licensed clinicians assigned to aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious assault ships. They offer confidential, short-term, nonmedical counseling for all sailors attached to the ship.

    The resiliency counselor program supports two counselors on every carrier and amphibious ship in the fleet. On the East Coast, 10 of 22 positions were vacant as of Oct. 17, according to Navy Installations Command, which oversees the Fleet and Family Support Program that provides nonmedical mental health counseling for sailors and family members.

    “I see sailors that maybe are having work-related problems, family issues, maybe an email they received from home while deployed saying, ‘I don’t want the marriage or the relationship.’ So, they are coming to me for that engagement. My job is to patch them up, get them to work through it and return them back to the mission,” Levine said.

    But, a lot of sailors, he said, still have concerns that talking to him will impact their work life.

    Around 35% of service members believe receiving mental health care would negatively impact their careers, according to the Defense Health Agency’s Psychological Health Center of Excellence. Fears include being perceived as weak or less competent or receiving blame or different treatment from leaders for seeking mental health care.

    Levine relies on word of mouth to break down that stigma.

    “From what I have been told by these same sailors is that talking to me didn’t hurt their career. And they are talking to other sailors, saying that if you have a problem, go to the Talk Boss, go to psych, seek out the resources,” Levine said. “I see more people really taking control of their mental health and seeking the help that they need.”

    Another resource available to sailors is the Command Religious Ministries Department.

    The Navy is working to increase the presence of chaplains on ships based in Norfolk from 37 to 47, the Associated Press reported in March. Previously, chaplains were routinely deployed only on the largest aircraft carriers, which have up to 5,000 personnel.

    “In my opinion, from my experience, I don’t think that we’re seeing an increase of issue. I think we are seeing an increase in education, an increase of resources being developed and implemented and pushed into our sailors’ lives in a good way,” said Marlin Williams, a chaplain aboard the USS George Washington.

    Chaplain Marlin Williams sits for a portrait in the faith center aboard the USS George Washington (CVN-73) off the coast of Florida on Sept. 15. “It ripples into the leadership, the whole command , and the whole fleet when people hear of the death,” Williams said of the suicides on board. (Billy Schuerman / The Virginian-Pilot)

    The ministries departments are diverse groups of religious clergy who are also naval officers and of various denominations. The chaplains provide pastoral counseling — not mental health counseling — but they often have advanced degrees in counseling.

    “What we bring to the table, whether someone has a faith community or not, is that sense of greater purpose bigger than oneself,” Williams said.

    The chaplains are able to offer sailors absolute confidentiality. He said this applies when sailors express suicidal thoughts.

    “The ability to come in and talk to someone knowing that whatever you say is going to be held in confidence opens up an amazing door to healing for someone,” Williams said.

    Williams checked in aboard the Washington at the start of January. By the end of the month, another Washington sailor died by suicide.

    “That was tragic,” Williams said. “It ripples through the whole command and, quite honestly, it ripples into the fleet.”

    For Williams, suicide is personal. Two of his brothers have died by suicide.

    “There is a sense of hopelessness. Making sure I articulate there is hope — that is not a 5-minute conversation. That is not a 10-minute conversation. That is a journey,” Williams said.

    Williams seeks a personal connection that lets sailors know they’re heard and cared for, he said. That’s the same leadership style Caudle, with Fleet Forces, wants to become standard across the Navy.


    ‘God forbid more families have to go through this’

    After Kody Decker’s death, his friend and fellow sailor separated from the Navy a year before his contract was scheduled to end. He cited his own mental health struggles.

    “The Navy can either be really good — amazing enough that you want to retire with them. But if you get dealt a bad hand, which comes down to the leadership that runs the show, it can lead to things like this: depression, anxiety, suicide,” the former sailor said.

    Since the start of October, Robert Decker has been bracing himself.

    “It’s like I’m standing on the shore and I’m looking at the ocean and I can see the storm coming,” Robert Decker said. “The winds are picking up now. Oct. 29 is coming, and it’s going to be hell.”

    Over the past 12 months, the family has experienced their first holiday, his child’s first birthday and major milestones without Kody Decker.

    “This will be the last big first,” Robert Decker said, slowly exhaling a deep, shaking breath.

    Robert Decker wipes tears from his eyes on April 12 while talking about his son Kody, a 22-year-old sailor who died by suicide in 2022. (Stephen Katz / The Virginian-Pilot)

    In the midst of the grief, Decker said this year has also brought much-needed change and an improved awareness of mental health struggles to the service and the general public.

    “Being angry at the world, being angry at an institution is not the answer. I am not happy with them, but I am happy that they are willing to address their problems,” Robert Decker said, quietly adding, “It cost me a son, unfortunately.”

    Moving forward, Robert Decker said he would like to see a more personal leadership style standardized across the service. For the leaders who are unwilling to change, he hopes the Navy will weed them out, beginning with those who work closest with junior sailors.

    “Leaders have got to be willing to adjust,” Robert Decker said. “I pray they do. God forbid more families have to go through this.”

    Caitlyn Burchett, [email protected]

    ​ Orange County Register