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Defense & National Security — Navy faces mental health crisis after suicides

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The Navy is investigating the suspected suicide deaths of four sailors all assigned to the same ship maintenance center in Virginia in the span of less than a month — a development that comes on the heels of an earlier spate of sailor suicides in April in the same state. 

We’ll share the details of the investigation and the circumstances leading up to the suicides, plus the Pentagon’s consideration of expanding training of Ukrainian troops in Europe and the newest regional headquarters for the Space Force. 

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell.

4 sailors die by apparent suicide in less than a month

The Navy and local authorities are investigating the suspected suicide deaths of four sailors all assigned to the same ship maintenance center in Norfolk, Va., in the span of less than a month.  

All four were assigned to Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center (MARMC) at Naval Station Norfolk, the Navy confirmed to The Hill on Friday. 

Identified: The most recently deceased of the four, Janelle Holder, was found dead on Nov. 26, according to Lt. Cmdr. Rochelle Rieger, a public affairs officer with MARMC.  

The three other sailors, Kody Lee Decker, 22, of Virginia; Cameron Armstrong; and Deonte Autry, 22, of Monroe, N.C., died on Oct. 29, Nov. 5 and Nov. 14, respectively. 

Under investigation: “The circumstances surrounding these separate incidents are currently under investigation by local police departments and the U.S. Navy,” Rieger said. 

‘Toxic leadership’: Kayla Arestivo, a licensed counselor brought to the center in mid-November to help sailors in the unit, told NBC News that she “was inundated with the amount of hopelessness at that command.” 

She added that “toxic leadership” was an issue highlighted by the sailors she saw, including feeling overworked and undervalued by leaders. 

Timing: A Navy spokesperson confirmed to The Hill that Arestivo, who is not typically on staff, was brought in along with other experts as part of a suicide prevention stand-down at MARMC between Nov. 14-16.  

The stand-down included presentations from different mental health organizations — including the command’s own suicide prevention coordinator — which all of the center’s assigned 3,000 sailors and civilian staff were required to receive, the spokesperson said.   

More about the center: About 1,500 uniformed sailors and 1,500 civilian staff are assigned to MARMC. Of the 1,500 sailors, about 500 are on limited duty for a variety of reasons, including mental or physical disabilities, are pregnant or postpartum mothers unable to be stationed aboard a ship or are dealing with personal circumstances such as a sick spouse.  

All four sailors suspected of dying by suicide were on limited duty, the spokesperson confirmed. 

Earlier tragedies: In April, three sailors assigned to the USS George Washington — about 30 miles away from Norfolk in Newport News, Va. — died by suicide within less than a week of each other. 

Read the full story here 

Pentagon mulls expansion of Ukraine forces training 

The Pentagon is considering expanding the training it provides to Ukrainian forces as the nation’s war with Russia drags on in its 10th month, according to multiple reports. 

Under the proposal, the U.S. military would instruct as many as 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers a month at an American base in Grafenwoehr, Germany, CNN reported on Wednesday. 

As military operations are expected to slow with the onset of winter, the potential lull in fighting could provide an opportunity to expand training efforts, U.S. officials told the outlet. 

Under discussion: Ukraine has requested the training, which U.S. officials said has been discussed for weeks, The Washington Post reported

Previous efforts: The U.S. has previously trained some Ukrainian soldiers in Poland on how to use the weapons that it has been providing to the war-torn country. In total, the Biden administration has sent more than $19 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of the country in February. 

The United Kingdom similarly launched a program this summer that aimed to provide basic military training to 10,000 Ukrainians, with more than 6,000 having already passed through the program. 

Read the rest here 

Space Force opens new regional base in Florida 

The Space Force, the Pentagon’s newest military service, activated on Friday its second regional headquarters in Tampa, Fla., under U.S. Central Command.  

U.S. Space Forces-Central, opened at MacDill Air Force Base, “will play a significant role in supporting Centcom’s growing need for space-based capabilities such as satellite navigation, communications and missile warnings” in the Middle East and central Asia, according to a Wednesday release from the command. 

What it will do: The new regional headquarters is meant to put more focus on space-related defense issues within Centcom and will carry out all space operations within the command’s area of responsibility.   

  • Led by Col. Christopher Putman, the 28-person staff is meant to “work with allies and partners to integrate space activities into shared operations,” Centcom noted. 
  • “Just as the evolution of space as a warfighting domain necessitated the establishment of a separate service, SPACECENT provides Centcom a subordinate command focused solely and continuously on space integration across the command – with all domains and all components,” Putman said in the release. 

Expanding: This is also the Space Force’s second geographically focused service component. The military branch on Nov. 23 activated U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.   

The Space Force, created in 2019 as a separate military branch within the Department of the Air Force, is tasked with training troops to protect and operate U.S. space-based assets including satellites and conduct space-based missions. 

Read that story here 

ON TAP FOR MONDAY

  • The Stimson Center will host a forum on “Voices from Japan: Japan’s National Security Strategy in the Era of Strategic Competition,” at 8:30 a.m.  
  • The Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, will hold a conversation on “Russia’s War in Ukraine: An End in Sight?” at 12:30 p.m. 
  • The Brookings Institution will hold a talk on “Nonstate armed actors in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria,” at 1 p.m. 
  • The Atlantic Council, will host a discussion on “Central European partners and allies in a time of war,” at 2 p.m. 
  • Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on “The Convergence of National Security and Homeland Security,” at 2:30 p.m. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you Monday.

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