Defense

Sailor assigned to embattled USS George Washington attempts suicide, mother says

An 18-year-old sailor assigned to the embattled USS George Washington has attempted suicide, the sailor’s mother told The Hill.

The sailor’s mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation against her son, told The Hill that he drank hand sanitizer before going to sleep in hopes that he wouldn’t wake up. It was the second time this year he attempted suicide by the same method, she added.

The Navy has been under scrutiny over the issues aboard the George Washington, particularly after three sailors died by suicide within less than a week of each other in April.

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is stationed in Newport News, Va. for a mid-life refueling and complex overhaul that began in 2017. Sailors have spoken out about the harsh treatment and living conditions aboard the ship.

Asked about the latest reported suicide attempt, a spokesperson for Naval Air Forces Atlantic said in a statement that the command “cares for the health and safety of every Sailor assigned to USS George Washington (CVN 73), and leadership has taken unprecedented measures to ensure that all Sailors receive immediate, holistic, and well-rounded care.”

“Every Sailor assigned to the ship is afforded access to comprehensive medical, spiritual, substance abuse rehabilitation, and psychological services,” Cmdr. Rob Myers added. “While leadership works hard to identify potential at risk personnel that may benefit from this support, the Navy continues to encourage our Sailors to ask for help and any service member who reports needing help will be provided with these resources and services.”

The sailor had been stationed on the George Washington since December and had just been assigned to work in the kitchen, his mother told The Hill.

He had grown less excited about his job, but he never really talked about what life was like on the ship, she said. But on Mother’s Day, he told his mother that he wasn’t happy with how he was being treated, she added.

“The day before he did what he did, he did voice that he wasn’t happy. He said ‘the treatment here has been unreal and I’m not happy,” the sailor’s mother said. “But I didn’t get any red flags like ‘Oh, tomorrow I’m going to do what I do and be in a situation.’”

The two planned to speak over the phone again on Monday, she said, adding that she couldn’t reach him until Tuesday, when she got a call from him on her way home from work.

She told The Hill that her son said that he was alive but was in the hospital because he had tried to kill himself.

“He’s like, ‘I don’t have much time to talk, and I’m just wanting to let you know that I’m here,’” the mother said. “I’m like, ‘Where are you at?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know, I’m at a hospital.’”

The sailor’s family then reached out to Brandon Caserta Foundation, which raises awareness of suicide among active-duty servicemembers. Patrick and Terri Caserta started the foundation after their 21-year-old son, for whom the foundation is named, died by suicide in 2018.

Their foundation issued a press release last Thursday about the suicide attempt, which also doesn’t name the family. The sailor’s mother said a captain aboard the George Washington called her last Friday, and told her he had no idea that the sailor attempted suicide until the hospital told him.

“He basically said that … he’s responsible for a lot of sailors. And he can’t call everybody that gets in trouble,” the mother recounted of the conversation.

The captain also reportedly told the sailor’s mom that no sailor had attempted suicide within the past ten months.

She said she found this suspicious, mainly because her son had also told her that he previously attempted suicide in January. She added that her son ended up in the hospital at the time, went to Captain’s Mast— a non-judicial form of discipline in the Navy—  and was told to take classes.

The mother said she wasn’t able to reach her son for about two weeks in January, and didn’t find out about the suicide attempt until he told her last week. The Navy never told her about that prior attempt, she added.

Asked about the January incident, a military official told The Hill that the immediate finding was an underage alcohol-related incident. At that point, the commanding officer on the ship offered the sailor treatment resources, the official said.

Patrick Caserta, one of the founders of the Brandon Caserta Foundation, said the Navy should’ve handled the first incident differently.  

“How could you possibly think somebody’s drinking hand sanitizer to get drunk?” Patrick Caserta asked. “If he was embarrassed and he kept it a secret from his parents. That is very possible. I’m not going to deny that. But the command — if they were concerned about him, [they] should have done something.”

The mother said she last spoke with her son on Saturday, and that he seemed to be in better spirits.

She also said her son, who is living in housing in Portsmouth, Va., can be transferred from his job in the kitchen to transportation if he accepts in-person care.

If he doesn’t accept in-person care, she said that a doctor on the ship would have to determine whether her son is fit to work in transportation, noting that he would face separation if he is not found fit.

The military official who spoke with The Hill also said that the command on the ship has remained in “frequent contact” with the mother and the servicemember.   

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