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Why proposed solutions to combat the military's high suicide rate aren't implemented


The U.S. military is awash in studies detailing the risk of suicide among troops, with more studies on the way. But their findings are often not put into practice. WHRO's Steve Walsh reports.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: In a recent report, the Navy detailed the last days of three sailors who died by suicide a year ago in April on board the USS George Washington. John Sandor and Mary Graft, the parents of Seaman Recruit Xavier Mitchell-Sandor received a text from him minutes before he died.

JOHN SANDOR: He said he was sorry. He tried his hardest, but he can't do it anymore. And he didn't want us to be disappointed, but he just couldn't do it anymore.

MARY GRAFT: No one should have to live this way.

WALSH: The young sailor was on his first tour. His ship was torn apart while it underwent maintenance. His supervisors knew he was violating policy by driving eight hours to see his parents in Maryland, returning to the ship heavily sleep deprived, which may have contributed to his death.

SANDOR: They knew he was having trouble with ship life and did nothing about it. They knew he was sleeping in his car and did nothing about it. So I feel the command is at fault. The Navy failed him and us as a family.

WALSH: The latest report calls for several changes in the Navy's suicide policy. The family is afraid that the recommendations will go nowhere. A valid fear, says David Rudd, psychology professor with University of Memphis. Rudd has been conducting multiple studies on suicide for the military for a decade.

DAVID RUDD: The problem isn't recommendations. I mean, the reality is we know what to do. It's not about knowing what to do. It's actually doing it. And implementing it in a military culture is arguably the biggest challenge.

WALSH: He points to a 2010 Defense Department study about suicide that has many of the same recommendations as a similar study that came out this year - ideas like leaders need to better understand the problem, and there needs to be easier access to mental health care.

RUDD: A divisional commander - they're only going to be in charge for a couple of years before they move on to another job. So you just have people moving in and out so often, you can't get continuity about anything, and particularly around clinical care.

WALSH: Even the Army Auditor General acknowledges the backlog of unused reports. It found nearly 90% of recent Army studies don't even include recommendations. Nick Schwellenbach is with the Project On Government Oversight.

NICK SCHWELLENBACH: My jaw dropped a bit because the harmful behaviors addressed involved suicide, sexual assault, sexual harassment, drug use, domestic violence.

WALSH: In the report, the Army couldn't answer why there hadn't been better follow through on the Army's own research.

SCHWELLENBACH: We may have people who are literally losing their lives because research is gathering dust somewhere. So there are real consequences here.

WALSH: Families often look to Congress. The family of Seaman Recruit Xavier Mitchell-Sandor are supporting legislation working to improve living conditions for sailors on board ships in maintenance. Congressman Bobby Scott's district covers the shipyard in Newport News. He's seen several bills filed.

BOBBY SCOTT: We need to address the underlying causes, and we need to make sure that those who are in particular stress get the care that they need. We cannot accept the number of suicides in the Navy.

WALSH: Scott is co-sponsoring a separate bill to require the Navy to have a trained mental health professional for units who have 15 or more sailors on limited duty after four sailors died by suicide in Norfolk. He expects the language to tackle suicide will be included in the defense bill currently moving through the House. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.


SCHMITZ: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Just those three digits - 9-8-8.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDRIK LUNDBERG'S "TWO BIRDS") 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.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.