NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) questioned the Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro about the suicides among Sailors assigned to the USS George Washington.
Navy leaders spoke in front of Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning. Kaine asked how the Navy is looking into the situation.
Del Toro responded that there are two investigations currently going on: One into the ship's command, and another into the quality of life of Sailors assigned to ships that are being overhauled.
The Washington has been getting refueled at Newport News Shipbuilding since 2017.
"Some Sailors will spend their entire career on a ship that never goes to sea, and they'll never perform the duties they trained for in boot camp," Kaine said. "I wonder if that fact, the length of these berths, is a challenging factor."
Del Toro said the Navy needs a better plan for Sailors in these situations.
"I think institutionally - the Department of the Navy - we need to do a better job providing resources to the ship itself in the contracts that are negotiated with the shipyard itself to provide a higher quality of life for those Sailors in the shipyard," Del Toro said.
CBS News reported that since 2019, seven Sailors assigned to the Washington have died by suicide.
On Wednesday, Navy leadership answered questions from members of the House about their budget proposal and the Washington.
Afterwards, News 3 spoke with Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) about the response by the Navy.
"There are always going to be Sailors living and working in that environment," she said. "We need to have better resources. We need to have barracks. We need better parking. Look at transportation and quality of life issues, so there's really a lot of questions that need to be answered. We can't just say the status quo is OK."
From Arizona, Teri and Patrick Caserta have been following these developments. For the past four years, they've been raising the issue of mental health in the military after their son Brandon took his own life at Naval Station Norfolk in 2018.
"It's heartbreaking. We can't believe this is happening. It should not be happening," said Teri.
A law named after their son, called the Brandon Act, helps service members get immediate and anonymous mental health treatment. "It seems like our son tasked us with this. It might seem easy, but it's not," said Patrick. "Somebody has to do it."
The Casertas believe the Brandon Act could've helped Sailors at the Washington, but don't believe many know about it. "In order for it to be fully implemented, they need to push it all the way down through the ranks," said Teri.
Due to their advocacy for mental health treatment, the Casertas say they've been getting messages from Sailors and families about their mental health struggles.
They say they try to direct them to mental health treatment, but say many are afraid they could jeopardize their careers. They say they encourage them to speak up, perhaps to the media, perhaps to lawmakers about the conditions they face.
"We love the military. It's just that sometimes they're not doing what they're supposed to do," said Patrick.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and need help, below are some resources:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
- Crisis Textline: Text ASKUS to 741741