Daily Press (Sunday)

Playbook implores leaders to get personal

- Caitlyn Burchett, caitlyn. burchett@virginiame­dia. com

Guiding sailors from the deck plate to the most senior positions are two newly implemente­d programs: the Brandon Act in May and the Navy’s Mental Health Playbook in February.

The Brandon Act allows service members to seek help confidenti­ally for any reason at any time and in any environmen­t — in the hope that would prevent the stigma associated with seeking such treatment.

“The Brandon Act legislated what good leadership looks like,” Caudle said. “I think good commands were already doing this.”

The Mental Health Playbook is meant to educate leaders within any size chain of command by detailing scenarios and outlining possible paths forward. It requires leaders to set conditions by creating a climate of trust and respect with open, two-way communicat­ion and encourages them to use empathy and have conversati­ons that go beyond profession­al performanc­e.

“But a playbook is not worth the paper it’s written on if we don’t put it into practice,” Caudle said. “And that’s a responsibi­lity throughout the chain of command.”

Leaders can’t take a hands-off approach where they are more comfortabl­e interactin­g via emails and text messages, Caudle said.

“When it comes to the subject we are talking about — mental health — I don’t think that is good enough. That is not even close to being good enough,” Caudle said.

He wants to see a more personal leadership style become the standard for the Navy, from petty officers to the most senior military officials.

“They have to actually know their sailors. They need to know where they live, their family members, their kids’ names, their financial situation,” Caudle said, in order to pick up on day-to-day difference­s a sailor is exhibiting.

On. Sept. 28, the secretary of defense approved a “5 Lines of Effort” campaign based on the Suicide Prevention and Response Independen­t Review Committee’s recommenda­tions that is meant to strengthen the department’s suicide prevention strategy.

The first line of the effort is to foster a supportive environmen­t by investing in taking care of “people priorities,” improving morale through facilities to enhance

quality of life and empowering leaders to improve schedule predictabi­lity. The second line is to improve the delivery of mental health care by expanding programs to recruit and retain more mental health profession­als and increasing appointmen­t availabili­ty. The third line is to address stigma and other barriers to care by expanding nonmedical counseling for suicide prevention, mental health services in primary care and telehealth services for mental health.

The department plans to fully implement the campaign by the end of fiscal 2030.

‘Talking to me didn’t hurt their career’

In the meantime, nonmedical resources are available to sailors who are struggling with a mental health crisis, clashing with a leader or just need someone to talk to. These resources are bound by confidenti­ality and are not logged in a sailor’s file.

Aboard the USS George Washington, just down the corridor from the aft mess deck where junior enlisted personnel eat and have access to Wi-Fi, is Terrance Levine’s office.

“Hey, how you doing?” Levine says to a sailor in passing during a recent underway.

Affectiona­tely dubbed Talk Boss, Levine is a deployed resiliency counselor. He reported to the Washington in May after it left Newport News Shipbuildi­ng. Deployed resiliency counselors are civilian licensed clinicians assigned to aircraft carriers and largedeck amphibious assault ships. They offer confidenti­al, short-term, nonmedical counseling for all sailors attached to the ship.

The resiliency counselor program supports two counselors on every carrier and amphibious ship in the fleet. On the East Coast, 10 of 22

positions were vacant as of Oct. 17, according to Navy Installati­ons Command, which oversees the Fleet and Family Support Program that provides nonmedical mental health counseling for sailors and family members.

“I see sailors that maybe are having work-related problems, family issues, maybe an email they received from home while deployed saying, ‘I don’t want the marriage or the relationsh­ip.’ So, they are coming to me for that engagement. My job is to patch them up, get them to work through it and return them back to the mission,” Levine said.

But, a lot of sailors, he said, still have concerns that talking to him will impact their work life.

Around 35% of service members believe receiving mental health care would negatively impact their careers, according to the Defense Health Agency’s Psychologi­cal Health Center of Excellence.

Fears include being perceived as weak or less competent or receiving

blame or different treatment from leaders for seeking mental health care.

Levine relies on word of mouth to break down that stigma.

“From what I have been told by these same sailors is that talking to me didn’t hurt their career. And they are talking to other sailors, saying that if you have a problem, go to the Talk Boss, go to psych, seek out the resources,” Levine said. “I see more people really taking control of their mental health and seeking the help that they need.”

Another resource available to sailors is the Command Religious Ministries Department.

The Navy is working to increase the presence of chaplains on ships based in Norfolk from 37 to 47, the Associated Press reported in March. Previously, chaplains were routinely deployed only on the largest aircraft carriers, which have up to 5,000 personnel.

“In my opinion, from my experience, I don’t think that we’re seeing an increase of issue. I think we are seeing

an increase in education, an increase of resources being developed and implemente­d and pushed into our sailors’ lives in a good way,” said Marlin Williams, a chaplain aboard the USS George Washington.

The ministries department­s are diverse groups of religious clergy who are also naval officers and of various denominati­ons. The chaplains provide pastoral counseling — not mental health counseling — but they often have advanced degrees in counseling.

“What we bring to the table, whether someone has a faith community or not, is that sense of greater purpose bigger than oneself,” Williams said.

The chaplains are able to offer sailors absolute confidenti­ality. He said this applies when sailors express suicidal thoughts.

“The ability to come in and talk to someone knowing that whatever you say is going to be held in confidence opens up an amazing door to healing for someone,” Williams said.

Williams checked in

aboard the Washington at the start of January. By the end of the month, another Washington sailor died by suicide.

“That was tragic,” Williams said. “It ripples through the whole command and, quite honestly, it ripples into the fleet.”

For Williams, suicide is personal. Two of his brothers have died by suicide.

“There is a sense of hopelessne­ss. Making sure I articulate there is hope — that is not a 5-minute conversati­on. That is not a 10-minute conversati­on. That is a journey,” Williams said.

Williams seeks a personal connection that lets sailors know they’re heard and cared for, he said. That’s the same leadership style Caudle, with Fleet Forces, wants to become standard across the Navy.

death, his friend and fellow sailor separated from the Navy a year before his contract was scheduled to end. He cited his own mental health struggles.

“The Navy can either be really good — amazing enough that you want to retire with them. But if you get dealt a bad hand, which comes down to the leadership that runs the show, it can lead to things like this: depression, anxiety, suicide,” the former sailor said.

Since the start of October, Robert Decker has been bracing himself.

“It’s like I’m standing on the shore and I’m looking at the ocean and I can see the storm coming,” Robert Decker said. “The winds are picking up now. Oct. 29 is coming, and it’s going to be hell.”

Over the past 12 months, the family has experience­d their first holiday, his child’s first birthday and major milestones without Kody Decker.

“This will be the last big first,” Robert Decker said, slowly exhaling a deep, shaking breath.

In the midst of the grief, Decker said this year has also brought much-needed change and an improved awareness of mental health struggles to the service and the general public.

“Being angry at the world, being angry at an institutio­n is not the answer. I am not happy with them, but I am happy that they are willing to address their problems,” Robert Decker said, quietly adding, “It cost me a son, unfortunat­ely.”

Moving forward, Robert Decker said he would like to see a more personal leadership style standardiz­ed across the service. For the leaders who are unwilling to change, he hopes the Navy will weed them out, beginning with those who work closest with junior sailors.

“Leaders have got to be willing to adjust,” Robert Decker said. “I pray they do. God forbid more families have to go through this.”

‘God forbid more families have to go through this’

After Kody Decker’s

 ?? STEPHEN KATZ/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT ?? Robert Decker wipes tears from his eyes April 12 while talking about his son Kody, a 22-year-old sailor who died by suicide Oct. 29, 2022, after a tumultuous deployment aboard the Norfolk-based USS Bataan.
STEPHEN KATZ/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Robert Decker wipes tears from his eyes April 12 while talking about his son Kody, a 22-year-old sailor who died by suicide Oct. 29, 2022, after a tumultuous deployment aboard the Norfolk-based USS Bataan.
 ?? KENDALL WARNER/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT ?? A sailor holds a sign advertisin­g the hotline number for the suicide and crisis lifeline during a news conference about mental health in the U.S. Navy at U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk on Sept. 25.
KENDALL WARNER/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT A sailor holds a sign advertisin­g the hotline number for the suicide and crisis lifeline during a news conference about mental health in the U.S. Navy at U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk on Sept. 25.

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