Pentagon Watchdog Will Assess Navy's Suicide Response and Prevention Efforts Following Spate of Deaths

USS George Washington moors pierside at Naval Station Norfolk
USS George Washington moors pierside at Naval Station Norfolk, May 25, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tatyana Freeman)

The Pentagon's independent watchdog will investigate the Navy's ability to prevent and respond to suicides, a recently posted memo revealed.

The memo, dated Feb. 27, says that investigators from the Pentagon's Office of Inspector General will try to "determine whether the Department of Navy effectively took actions to prevent and respond to incidents of deaths by suicide, suicide attempts, and suicidal ideation among members of the Navy assigned to sea duty or shore duty."

The investigation comes after the sea service experienced several suicide clusters aboard its ships that were undergoing maintenance at shipyards on both coasts, as well as an East Coast maintenance depot. The Navy's own audits have found the service's implementation of suicide prevention efforts to be lacking.

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The memo notes that investigators plan to visit most of the Navy's main base areas, specifically citing Norfolk Naval Air Station in Virginia; Naval Base San Diego in California; Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Washington; and Naval Station Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

The Navy has been plagued with high-profile suicide clusters and media coverage of the incidents for several years.

In 2022, first reported that the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier that was undergoing a massive yearslong overhaul, had suffered at least nine suicides since November 2019.

Later, Navy investigations confirmed that quality-of-life issues, along with poor leadership and a general failure to take care of sailors, basically left them fending for themselves and drove suicidal thoughts to become widespread on the ship.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier that underwent a much shorter 18-month overhaul in Bremerton, also had at least three suicides aboard. The last of those occurred in January 2023.

A Navy spokesperson told that they were "aware of the announcement, and we are standing by to support the evaluation."

"The Department of Navy remains committed to the well-being and mental health of our sailors and their families and will continue to prioritize suicide prevention efforts," the spokesperson added.

The Navy's investigation into a cluster of four suicides in the fall of 2022 at a regional maintenance center in Norfolk revealed that the command -- staffed in no small part by sailors who are undergoing mental health or other medical issues -- was not equipped to handle their needs.

The investigation also found that the command struggled to offer even basic suicide prevention, and its policies didn't have any guidance on dealing with sailors who demonstrated suicidal behaviors or what should be done in the aftermath of a suicide.

Investigators also found that the unit hadn't conducted an annual suicide prevention drill in three years.

That investigation also revealed that "the Navy, writ large, has failed to fully implement the suicide prevention program" as defined by its own rules.

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