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Pressure drove dozens of sailors to leave the Navy over mental health concerns

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

A Navy investigation into the suicide of a sailor on the USS Roosevelt reveals a toxic culture aboard the carrier. Dozens of sailors have left the ship for mental health reasons, and Steve Walsh with member station WHRO in Norfolk explains why.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: One year ago this month, Jacob Slocum died by suicide. The 23-year-old was a nuclear electrician's mate on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Kim McInerney can't stop thinking about what her son said.

KIM MCINERNEY: He felt that he made the wrong choice. Like, I screwed up, mom. I screwed up. I should have got out. I should have never gone nuke.

WALSH: Never gone nuke. Working with a nuclear reactor on board an aircraft carrier is one of the most demanding jobs in the Navy. Experts say the staff is under tremendous pressure. Former Petty Officer Caitlin Ross remembers Slocum looking depressed near the time of his death.

CAITLIN ROSS: A lot of people were struggling. It was a really hard time during shipyard. Like, it was hard on everybody.

WALSH: On top of 12-hour days, sailors must pass a number of demanding tests to remain qualified to work around the ship's two nuclear power plants. Slocum had fallen months behind, which meant he would have to receive mandatory counseling from the chiefs in the department. The report says some supervisors created a toxic work environment. One chief berated Slocum in front of the crew the day he died. Ross says some leaders put a strain on the whole department.

ROSS: Yeah. The chiefs would counsel, but then they would go way harder than they needed to. I hated counselings (ph), but I heard they were pretty tough on them, especially Jacob.

WALSH: The Navy is trying to get at the root cause of suicides, especially after three sailors died in one month in 2022 onboard the USS George Washington. Teresa Daniel with Sullivan University in Louisville researches toxic leadership, including in the Army.

TERESA DANIEL: Several of the people that I interviewed at Fort Leavenworth said, I would rather go back and be deployed to war than have to go back and work for this toxic leader because of the humiliation.

WALSH: The USS Roosevelt reported a spike in mental health visits in June and July of 2022. Almost half of the cases were from the reactor department. As Jacob Slocum fell farther behind on his qualifications, he was sent to a captain's mast to be disciplined, where he expressed that he didn't wish to remain in the Navy. Instead, he was placed on restriction and told to keep trying to qualify. Ross, who left the Navy this year for mental health issues, says she believes the Navy doesn't have enough nuclear-qualified sailors.

ROSS: Their whole mindset is if you can pass the schooling, which as Jacob did, and make it to the fleet, they really don't want to lose nukes.

WALSH: Since June of 2022, 24 sailors have left the USS Roosevelt for mental health reasons, six from the reactor department. In boot camp, Slocum expressed thoughts of suicide, but the ship's doctors told investigators that he didn't repeat those concerns to them. His mother, Kim McInerney, says the Navy should have recognized the toxic environment on board the carrier.

MCINERNEY: I feel like if the captain would have just taken a couple minutes to really talk to Jacob, Jacob may have opened up a bit more.

WALSH: The Navy's report said a small number of people were sanctioned as a result of Jacob Slocum's death but faced no court martial or removal from the Navy. Navy officials have yet to provide further details. But Slocum's mother says, unless leaders are removed, she fears there will be more cases like her son.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

MA: If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call, text or chat with the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Veterans, press one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Walsh | WHRO