Sailors are deserting the U.S. Navy in droves, with the number of those abandoning the service more than doubling from 2019 to 2021, according to experts and data obtained by NBC News on Wednesday.
In 2021, the Navy recorded 157 new desertions out of the more than 342,000 active-duty sailors, whereas the branch had just 63 deserters in 2019 and 98 deserters in 2020. Most of the deserters were under the age of 25, Navy data showed.
“That’s staggering,” said Benjamin Gold, a defense attorney who serves U.S. troops.
Of the more than 150 U.S. Navy deserters who were still missing as of May 9, two are from USS George Washington. One sailor has been at large for about five months, whereas the other abandoned the service in March 2021.
Over the last 12 months, five sailors aboard the George Washington have committed suicide, including three within the same week in April, officials said. Sailors familiar with life on the Navy ship said the service does not provide those needing help with necessary resources. They also noted that USS George Washington has horrible living conditions, including constant construction that makes sleeping extremely difficult. The ship also reportedly has a lack of hot water and electricity.
Military experts, including GI Rights Hotline resource counselor Lenore Yarger, believe years-long contracts force many young service members who signed up just out of high school to feel “trapped,” leading to suicide or desertion.
“There is no easy option,” said Hannah Crisostomo, an aviation boatswain’s mate handler on the USS George Washington. Crisostomo was on life support for over a week after attempting suicide. She later received an honorable discharge with a medical condition.
Lt. Cmdr. Devin Arneson, a U.S. Navy spokesperson, said the punishment for desertion during wartime includes death and life in prison, but in other times, the penalties are less severe.
“It’s not just any sort of offense,” said Stephen Karns, a Dallas-based military law attorney. “It’s like you gave up on your country.”
The most recent data available shows that 580 service members died by suicide in 2020, marking a 16 percent jump from the year before, the Defense Department said.
“The military can be a great place,” Karns noted. “But if you don’t like it for whatever reason, it can be a very suffocating and miserable place.”
In the Navy, sailors must go through their superiors to get mental health support, and the next appointment may not be available for several weeks.
“In the military, it’s get in line,” he added. “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.”