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Navy report says suicides among USS George Washington sailors not connected, points to ‘life stressors’

In this handout from the U.S. Navy, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) departs on July 25, 2010, from Busan, South Korea. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas/U.S. Navy via Getty Images/TNS)

Marital turmoil, mental health struggles and an “inability to acclimate” to military life — “life stressors” contributed to the life-ending decisions of three sailors assigned to the USS George Washington in April, a Navy investigation released Monday reported.

Xavier Mitchell-Sandor, an 18-year-old sailor, lived aboard the dry-docked carrier for just three months before sending a final text message to his parents. During his time on the Washington, he slept in his car “on several occasions” and traveled home to Connecticut often to escape the shell of a ship that was periodically without hot water or power.

“Quality of life concerns were major sources of stress for Mitchell-Sandor, but these were not the sole cause of his suicide,” the report concludes.

Mitchell-Sandor was one of three sailors who died by suicide within a week in April while the carrier was undergoing an overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding. In response, the Navy launched two investigations — one into the cause of and any correlation between the deaths, and another seeking answers to more extensive questions about what sailors experience while their ship is in the yard.

The roughly 60-page report includes summary interviews of more than three dozen people who worked with each of the sailors leading up to their deaths.

“We have diligently worked to determine the facts and understand the circumstances surrounding these tragic events with the hope that this will not only provide closure to those grieving the loss of our shipmates, but to learn and better refine our process to address a public health issue that affects families, communities, and our society,” said Rear Adm. John F. Meier, commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic.

Besides being assigned to the same ship undergoing a lengthy overhaul, the suicides, the Navy found, were not connected.

Mika’il Sharp, a 23-year-old retail services specialist, died by suicide April 9 at a private residence in Hampton. While Sharp had been assigned to the Washington, he was on temporary additional duty orders to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek to attend barber school and lived at his mother’s house at the time.

The Navy reports that on the night of Sharp’s “impulsive decision to end his life,” he got into a drunken physical altercation with his wife while at a house party. Theinvestigation concluded that Sharp “likely felt his actions had irreconcilable negative consequences for his marriage, his life and his career.”

The same night, Natasha Huffman, a 24-year-old interior communications electrician, died at her residence following a night of heavy drinking and an argument with her boyfriend.

Huffman had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking prescription medications from military and civilian doctors.

“Based on discussions with the George Washington Senior Medical Officer, Psych Boss, and the investigation team’s own mental health consultant, mixing any of these medications with alcohol would increase the effect of sedation, likely affecting IC3 Huffman’s decision making ability,” the report read.

Like Sharp, Huffman was not living on the Washington. As of November 2021 — around five months before she died — Huffman had moved off the carrier and was living at Huntington Hall barracks on temporary additional duty orders.

Less than a week later, on April 15, Mitchell-Sandor died by suicide aboard the Washington. According to the report, Mitchell-Sandor’s death was the result of sleep deprivation, undiagnosed and untreated depression and an “inability to acclimate” to military life and the shipyard environment.

But the investigation found that during the three months he lived aboard the ship, it was periodically without hot water or power and other sailors reported constant noise and cold temperatures.

Mitchell-Sandor considered opportunities to live off ship, including looking into off-base housing or renting a residence. According to the Navy, Mitchell-Sandor was offered the opportunity to change his berthings multiple times, but he declined.

“However, for a brand-new 18-year-old sailor, more senior sailors, sponsors, or mentors should have helped him to understand his options and encouraged him to relocate,” the report reads.

Senior enlisted leadership, the report continued, knew Mitchell-Sandor was sleeping in his car and counseled him, but “there is no evidence of any follow through to understand the root cause for his decision making.”

“This was a time for intrusive leadership,” the report said.

But, the Navy maintains Mitchell-Sandor’s quality of life aboard the Washington was not the cause of his death. The investigation found Mitchell-Sandor was sleep deprived from juggling 12-hour shifts aboard the carrier with 8-hour commutes to visit family and friends in Connecticut and South Carolina. The investigation also reports Mitchell-Sandor expressed suicidal thoughts to loved ones multiple times in the months leading up to his death, and that he told them he felt “trapped” in the Navy.

The report released Monday does not address overall sailor quality of life when assigned to units bound to the shipyard for extended periods of time, but was provided to give context to potential stressors each sailor was facing.

“We have taken a number of additional steps to provide for the care and well-being of our service members but the bottom line is that we can, and will, do more for our sailors and their families. I look forward to the further recommendations that are expected in the coming months to inform future actions, which I am confident will have lasting benefits for our Navy,” Meier said.

Following the deaths, 370 of 422 sailors living on USS George Washington were moved to on-shore housing. The Navy installed cell repeaters, wireless internet and stepped up morale and welfare programs. The Navy also dispatched an additional clinical psychologist and a mental health clinician to supplement the Washington’s medical team, and the sailors have immediate access when calling the Hampton Roads appointment line as well as being provided expedited appointments for mental health referrals.

The rash of suicides also prompted senators to call for increased Department of Defense mental health funding, which included a 4.6% pay increase. The bill was passed by the House and the Senate in recent weeks, and has gone to the president’s desk.

Before the Navy’s investigation into the USS George Washington suicides was complete, the Navy began investigating another string of suicides — this time four sailors assigned to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center in Norfolk. The four recent deaths occurred in the span of a month, with the most recent occurring Nov. 26.

“We have not fully cracked the code both on the availability of mental health services within the DoD and (the Department of) Veterans Affairs, but also breaking down the stigma that too often exists within the military that makes a young soldier or sailor reluctant to use mental health services,” said Sen. Mark Warner during a media availability in December.

Stigma surrounding seeking mental health treatment is not an issue that is unique to the military, Warner said.

“But it is exacerbated with young men and women who are oftentimes separated from their families under high-stress jobs,” Warner said.

Resources for service members and veterans struggling with mental health, including 24-hour crisis hotlines, can be found below:

•The Military Crisis Line: call 1-800-273-8255, ext. 1; or text “273Talk” to 839863

•Military OneSource: 1-800-342-9647

•National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988 — call or text


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