Navy desertions have more than doubled due to suicide risks as sailors feel trapped by contracts

‘Get in line’

In 2020, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 580 service members died by suicide, a 16% increase from 2019, when 498 died by suicide, according to the Department of Defense. Nineteen out of 100,000 sailors died by suicide in 2020, compared to members of the military, which had the highest rate at around 36 per 100,000, according to Pentagon statistics.

Navy suicides fell slightly from 74 in 2019 to 66 in 2020, according to Pentagon statistics. But Karns said that doesn’t mean there isn’t a mental health issue. It could mean more sailors are choosing to desert rather than kill themselves, he said, or it could indicate more sailors are receiving successful hospital treatment.

Meanwhile, desertions from the army have steadily declined since 2019 as its numbers have grown. There were 174 desertions from the military last year — down from 291 in 2020 and 238 in 2019, Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Hewitt, Army Spokesman.

The Marine Corps said it had 442 deserters; it did not provide an annual comparison of data. The Coast Guard said there were no deserters from 2017 to 2021 and the Air Force did not provide requested data as of Wednesday evening.

Navy officials struggled to explain the rise in desertions, saying sailors may be exposed to “many different stressors.” Arneson said the reasons people choose to take extreme measures are personal. “We don’t want to guess anyone’s motives,” she said.

But military law experts said the increase was unsurprising, given how mental health often plays a role when service members leave their posts.

Karns said mental health issues factored into nearly every one of the 1,000 unauthorized absence or desertion cases he handled, including more than 150 from the Navy. The average age of its clients in these cases is 25 and under.

“The military can be a great place,” he said. “But if you don’t like it for some reason it can be a very stuffy and miserable place.”

Unlike the civilian world, where people can seek mental health care without the knowledge of their employer and get faster consultations, sailors must inform their superiors and wait for the next available appointments with military medical providers, which which can take several weeks.

Prior to the April suicides, there had been only one psychologist on the George Washington to serve approximately 2,700 people.

“In the military, it’s queuing,” Karns said. “They have no problem telling you, well, you can’t get in until next month, and guess what? Your follow-up appointment isn’t for another month either.

The graduating class from the Naval Academy enters Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland in 2019.File Alex Wong/Getty Images

Yarger said many of the calls she answered to the GI Rights hotline came from sailors who were deserting because they needed mental health care that they weren’t getting. “Either I go back to the ship and risk injury or go to UA,” Yarger said, recalling the sailors’ comments. “It’s something we get too many calls for.”

The Navy said sailors experiencing mental difficulties caused by external issues, such as the health of family members, may separate early under voluntary administrative options.

Experts said it was a long and nearly impossible remedy to get out early for being mentally unfit, due to a ‘wolf cry’ effect on ships. Karns said that because so many sailors claim to be leaving, military medical providers on base have the difficult task of determining which sailors are truly in need and which may be abusing the system.

For those who desert and are discharged to face the consequences, several attorneys and military law advisers said, the Navy routinely uses administrative or non-criminal procedures to separate them on dishonorable terms, which is less serious than a dishonorable discharge.

Such procedures are more convenient for command and less punitive for sailors, but other than honorable discharges could hinder future employment in law enforcement or the federal government and affect service members’ ability to retain medical benefits, disability compensation and other privileges granted. to veterans.

If a service member deserts or is absent without official leave for a continuous period of at least 180 days, the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot provide benefits unless it is determined that the service member was insane at the time, according to the agency.

“It may seem like the right thing to do right now because you are in desperate need of care,” Yarger said. “But it can really have a long-lasting effect on a person and their family.”

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