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The Navy’s Stress Problem: A Spouse’s Perspective

Damage Controlman 3rd Class Arturo Cunillasvaladez, from Big Bear Lake, Calif., assigned to Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship USS Rushmore (LSD 47), kisses his wife after returning to homeport. (U.S. Navy/Reymundo A. Villegas III)
Damage Controlman 3rd Class Arturo Cunillasvaladez, from Big Bear Lake, Calif., assigned to Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship USS Rushmore (LSD 47), kisses his wife after returning to homeport. (U.S. Navy/Reymundo A. Villegas III)

This article by originally appeared in Proceedings.

I could not believe my ears. My husband, chief of staff at Naval Surface Force Atlantic, was headed into a meeting. I had called, and the front desk put me through to him so I could tell him that I was short of breath and unable to walk to the bathroom -- I thought it was a heart attack. His answer, "Honey, this is a really important meeting, call 911 and I'll be home as soon as it's over." I said nothing, just started to cry. Then I heard him crying too, "What the hell was I thinking -- I'm on my way."

He made it home and we got through it, as we did six deployments, cancer, arthritis, and a number of other life challenges that are probably not out of the ordinary for a 25-year Navy marriage. But what should be out of the ordinary is the expectation the Navy places on "career at all costs," including family and -- as evidenced by the upward trend in suicide -- life itself.

The Navy has a hard time seeing its own flaws. Recently, I read two stories that are profoundly related, but seemed to ignore each other completely. The first was titled "Fatigue and Training Gaps Spell Disaster at Sea" , and the second was titled "Navy Sees Sudden Rise in Suicide Rates Since 2015 --Unclear on Causes."

Unclear? Really? The display of ignorance is stunning. The suicide of Vice Admiral Scott Stearney in Bahrain November 2018 should be a wakeup call, but just in case, good morning

Navy -- consider this an intervention. You have a stress problem.

My husband had been retired for about a month when I looked at him and said, "It's nice to have my John back!" He asked what I meant and I told him I that he was much less stressed than he had been for the past several years, when I was worried about not only his physical health, but also his mental health.

He was so immersed in multiple sea tours and a tough shore tour that he had no idea the effect it had on him -- and on us. Certainly, other professions have inherent stress, but few, if any, require the sacrifices that military life does: multiple deployments, separation during training events and travel, and the pressure of deadlines, career progression, and selection boards that seem to define a Navy person's self-worth.

I remember several years ago when John came home despondent--an acquaintance of his had taken his own life. "I just saw him a few days ago," he said, "and he did seem down. I know he is a geographic bachelor, having left his family in D.C. while he completed a commodore tour on the waterfront. He had shared that a couple of the ships in his squadron had done poorly at INSURV and made the comment that he thought he was on the fast track to flag, but the calls had stopped coming."

My husband felt that he failed his friend by missing the signs of stress, but I saw things differently. Immersed in the same environment, it seemed "the way things have to be" when in a leadership position. No display of weakness would be tolerated, and seeking help for depression or mental illness almost certainly would result in the end of most leadership tours and command positions -- and thus a career.

The Navy claims to be family friendly and acknowledges the stress of leadership and being at sea, but pays lip service to the problem. For example, a ship was on deployment and the executive officer (XO) received a call from home about a personal matter that left him devastated. He fell into a depressed state and refused to leave his cabin for days.

The ship's corpsman gave him a shot to knock him out for a couple of days, but it didn't help. The commanding officer (CO) was now faced with a dilemma. The XO was still eligible but not yet selected for command at sea, and he was afraid that a report of his condition would result in the end of his career. The CO decided to send him home and not tell anyone, under the provision that he would seek professional help immediately upon his arrival. He was flown off on emergency leave, and no report was made; the department heads stepped up and covered his duties and the ship completed nearly two months on deployment minus the XO. Why did the CO make this decision? Because he had no faith that the Navy would treat this individual without stigma or prejudice.

Also from the U.S. Naval Institute:

There are other Navy policies that conflict with the narrative that mental health is treated the same way any other illness. Scientific advances in antidepressant medications have made treatment of mild depression more successful, especially when combined with counseling. However, in many parts of the Navy, such as nuclear operations and Master at Arms, sailors can lose their clearance or designator if they are taking antidepressants -- even on shore duty. As a result, it is easy to imagine that a number of operators suffer from untreated depression, potentially creating a more dangerous situation.

I remember calling my husband on deployment as we normally did on Sundays and he asked why I was on speaker phone. For two Sundays I told him "no reason" but by the third week he figured out that something was amiss.

Finally, I admitted that I had blacked out in the commissary and fell, hitting my head and breaking my left elbow and right wrist. I had not told him because I knew that he was the one person on his ship who could not come home. In this case, the Navy did take care of its own -- his boss's wife, who happened to be a nurse, stayed with me for several weeks.

But where was the Navy? It was "every man for himself" while the ship was gone, but there was no infrastructure in place to care for those left behind. And this is my perspective as an officer's wife -- there is even less support for junior personnel.

So, Navy, what can you do? First, get outside help. If you are immersed in the stresses of military life, you immediately will fall into making excuses and justifications -- I know it because I have seen it over and over.

I watched the work of two Navy civilians, one a research scientist and sleep expert and the other leading the Navy's Operational Stress Control team, fight relentlessly to get the Navy's attention about the vicious cycle of stress, lack of sleep, and suicide for over a decade. They gained real traction after two deadly collisions, but so often they were marginalized and ignored by Navy leaders. I recall when my husband participated in a RAND workshop on "Sleep in the Military" and was the only operational active-duty representative in a group of more than 100. Navy leaders can't see the problem because they ARE the problem. Here are some things that might help:

  • Set up a senior mentorship program where leaders can seek advice anonymously from someone with a similar background but not in their chain of command.
  • Make mental health checkups part of routine preventive medical treatment--not a hotline, but a program that is part of their annual physical--for service members and their spouses.
  • Incorporate operational stress control training into the training cycle and give it the same importance as shooting guns or running engineering drills.
  • Provide free on-base child care for ALL shipboard sailors. You care about families? Put your money where your mouth is.
  • Mandate a four-day workweek for ships in homeport -- every Friday off. Since the Navy will never get under the 100-hour work week at sea, this step will even things out (almost) and provide more family time. The work still will get done -- trust me and trust your Sailors.
  • Designate a pool of former COs and XOs who can jump in when a commander has a personal emergency, then let them return when the issue is resolved. As much as the Navy likes to deny it, a ship is a ship.

I am a German citizen, so my perspective is different. My German Navy friends used to joke with my husband during his exchange tour, "In the US Navy you are either the future CNO or a complete failure." Over there, naval officers were happy to serve out their career as a mid grade officer or enlisted in a decent job, contributing but with no chance of promotion. Imagine that in the SWO community!

While Tricare has its challenges, overall it has been good to me, but it still pales in comparison with German health care. In Germany, a stressed-out executive has access to a "Kur" -- a health-focused retreat at a professional facility for three to four weeks, designed to return balance to his life. I recall once when my husband wanted to take off two consecutive weeks and was denied, despite having three times this much leave on the books, because "No one can be gone for so long without paying a price come FITREP time." Germans also take vacation in large blocks, usually three to four weeks at a time, with the basis that it takes this long to truly unwind, enjoy the vacation, and spin back up before returning. These ideas would represent foundational changes to Navy culture, but such a change is overdue.

The article on suicide mentioned that the Navy has revamped its suicide prevention policies and practices, but it is only addressing the symptoms, not the cause. The Vice Chief of Naval Operations mandated ten consecutive days leave for flag officers and "hopes that others will follow suit," but even that is not enough -- last time I checked, ten consecutive days includes two weekends, which should be four days off anyway. Hello: Admirals who do not think their organization will survive without them for a week are part of the problem.

While the Navy touts programmatic changes after the collisions in 2017, they do not address a culture that demands perfection, accepts family separation and high stress as part of the job, and stigmatizes those who seek help. Why? For the same reason the connection between the two articles is as invisible to the Navy as it is crystal clear to an outsider -- blindness and denial.

Hello Navy: for the sake of the sailors and leaders that need help NOW to prevent another 32 suicides this year, don't make excuses -- get help.

Since 1873, the U.S. Naval Institute has championed intellectual debate on key issues for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. For more go to usni.org.

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