‘Get in line’
In 2020, the most recent year for which full data is available, 580 military members died by suicide, a 16 percent increase from 2019, when 498 died by suicide, according to the Defense Department. Nineteen of every 100,000 sailors died by suicide in 2020, compared to members of the Army, which had the highest rate, at about 36 per 100,000, Pentagon statistics show.
Navy suicides decreased slightly from 74 in 2019 to 66 in 2020, Pentagon statistics show. But Karns said that doesn’t mean there isn’t a mental health problem. It could mean more sailors are choosing to desert rather than kill themselves, he said, or it could indicate that more are getting successful inpatient treatment.
Meanwhile, Army desertions have steadily declined since 2019, as its workforce has grown. There were 174 Army desertions last year — a reduction from 291 in 2020 and 238 in 2019, said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Hewitt, an Army spokesperson.
The Marine Corps said it has 442 deserters; it didn’t provide an annual comparison of data. The Coast Guard said there were no deserters from 2017 to 2021, and the Air Force hadn’t provided the requested data as of Wednesday night.
Navy officials struggled to explain the increase in desertions, saying sailors can be exposed to “many different stressors.” Arneson said the reasons people choose to take extreme actions are personal. “We don’t want to guess at someone’s motives,” she said.
But military law experts said the rise isn’t surprising, given how significantly mental health often plays a role when service members abandon their posts.
Karns said mental health issues have factored into almost every one of the 1,000 unauthorized absence or desertion cases he has handled, more than 150 of them from the Navy. The average age of his clients in those cases is 25 and below.
“The military can be a great place,” he said. “But if you don’t like it for whatever reason, it can be a very suffocating and miserable place.”
Unlike in the civilian world, where people can seek mental health care without their employers knowing and get quicker consultations, sailors have to inform their superiors and wait for the next available appointments with military medical providers, which can take several weeks.
Before the suicides in April, there had been only one psychologist on the George Washington to serve about 2,700 people.
“In the military, it’s get in line,” Karns said. “They have no problem telling you, well, you can’t get in until next month, and guess what? Your follow-up appointment is not for another month, either.”
Yarger said many of the calls she fields with the GI Rights Hotline are from sailors who desert because they need mental health care they aren’t getting. “Either I go back on the ship and I risk hurting myself, or I go UA,” Yarger said, recalling the sailors’ remarks. “It’s something we get too many calls about.”
The Navy said sailors experiencing mental hardships caused by external issues, such as family members’ health, can separate early under voluntary administrative options.
Experts said it’s a lengthy and nearly impossible recourse to exit early for being mentally unfit, because of a “cry wolf” effect on ships. Karns said that because so many sailors make that claim to leave, on-base military medical providers have the tough task of determining which sailors are genuinely in need and which may be abusing the system.
For those who desert and are returned to face consequences, several military law attorneys and counselors said, the Navy commonly uses administrative or noncriminal proceedings to separate them on other-than-honorable terms, which is less severe than a dishonorable discharge.
Such proceedings are more convenient for the command and less punishing for sailors, but other-than-honorable discharges could stymie future employment in law enforcement or within the federal government and affect service members’ ability to retain medical benefits, disability compensation and other privileges afforded 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 can’t provide benefits, unless it’s determined that the service member was insane at the time, according to the agency.
“It can seem like the right thing to do at the moment, because you’re desperate to get care,” Yarger said. “But it can really have a long-term effect on a person and their family.”