On suicide, sexual harassment, and command: A Naval officer’s experience

On suicide, sexual harassment, and command: A Naval officer’s experience

By "A. Naval Officer"

Best Defense guest columnist

I’d like to offer you my thoughts on this based on my experience in command. Not many folks know this, but as LT, I lost my deployment roommate to suicide about two weeks after we came home from our first deployment. 

Years later, when I was about to take command, there was an unusual spike in the number of suicides in our wing. I remembered what happened when I was a LT, so I asked my wife to help me talk to the entire command about suicide. We had outside people come in and talk about the standard "warning signs" and all, but it personally wasn’t enough. After the Q&A, I kept the entire command in place and opened up. I told them the story about my roommate, how he did it, when he did it, why he did it, who he left behind. I explained the emotions I went through, and I told them about emotions I watched my skipper go through. The second-guessing, the rage, the guilt. I told them that I never wanted anyone in the room to have to bear that pain, and I never wanted to be the one to tell a family member that their husband or wife or son or daughter took his or her own life. I explained that I felt 100 percent responsible to everyone in that room, not just because Navy regs told me so, but because it was honestly in my heart. I explained that if I was willing to open up that way to them, then I also had to be willing to follow through and that my office was open, my house was open, any time of day, for someone in need. I had a very strong CMC who felt the same way, and he helped to spread that level of commitment down, through the chief’s mess. I didn’t want it to become "intrusive." I simply wanted people to be willing to ask for help.

After that, I had sailors come talk to the CMC and me and open up. Not just about suicide, but about anything on their minds. We had others who we encouraged to speak with us when we went for a walk down the flight line or the across the flight deck on the ship. We also knew the "tough" guys well enough to break through their exterior when we could tell they needed help. We just felt like it was an important part of knowing our folks. I also saw it as my responsibility as "The Old Man" and as someone who had been affected by suicide earlier in my career. It was just how the CMC and I operated.

So I didn’t really think about it much, until my wife brought up an old story almost five years after I was in command. A sailor came to me with some very personal issues that were obviously affecting his performance at work. They were issues that the CMC and I could not solve for him, but we helped him get help. Not just get help, but helped make sure he got the right help. Ultimately, it resulted in his separation from the Navy. I remember thinking, "He’s a good kid" and that really it was in his best interest and the Navy’s best interest. When my wife brought the story up again recently, it was in the context of suicide in the military. She said, "You know that you saved that kid’s life, don’t you?" When she replayed the scenario with me a few times, I realized she was right.

But I’ve found it is a different leadership challenge when it comes to preventing sexual assault, particularly during my last deployment, which was in the desert. We could try to connect with our sailors when talking about sexual assault, enforce a buddy system, explain how to watch out for each other and how alcohol can increase risk, conduct walkthroughs of spaces, and make sure exterior lights were on throughout the night. Senior executives from the Department visited us in theater and told us what steps we could take to try to prevent sexual assault and we took the advice on board. But in the end, all we could do is try because things were external to what we could influence and we lived in a dynamic, transient environment. A sexual assault could happen to any one of our folks, male or female. The criminal could be someone from outside the military, outside the command. Or far worse, inside the command. I never felt that "try" was good enough, but I also did not want to give the impression that we were already victimized by the fear of a sexual assault. I could only hope the phone didn’t ring. It never did.

Even if my phone didn’t ring, it didn’t mean a sexual assault didn’t happen on my watch. Restricted reporting, while it protects the victim, doesn’t alert the unit commander. As much effort as we put into looking out for our shipmates, there may very well have been an unreported sexual assault or an assault reported using a restricted report. How would I ever know if we had failed? How would we ever know if we could have done something differently or if our own command climate was a factor? How could we position ourselves to prevent the next assault? How would I even know that a victim wasn’t comfortable reporting a crime to me? Or why?

The author is a 23-year Navy captain. A former squadron commander, he has deployed to OIF and OEF aboard ship and boots on the ground. He is married to a mental health professional and is a supporter of military families.