To hear the junior sailor tell it, Navy life had gotten hard by late 2021.
The 23-year-old petty officer 3rd class had undergone back-to-back deployments aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, including the infamous “COVID cruise” of 2020, where roughly a quarter of embarked sailors popped positive for the virus, prompting an emergency detour into Guam and the high-profile firing of TR’s commanding officer.
That was followed by another long stint at sea aboard the same carrier that began in December 2020.
Soon after returning home in May 2021, the sailor was transferred to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, as that crew began preparations for its own deployment.
Facing a third deployment in as many years, and reeling from a close family member’s attempted suicide, the sailor knew he was struggling and needed to talk with someone.
A family member, who was also in the service, encouraged the petty officer to heed the mantra of Navy leadership: If you need help, ask for it.
And so, on Nov. 25, 2021, the petty officer went to the Lincoln’s onboard psychologist.
But that’s when his problems elevated to a career-threatening level, according to the sailor and his civilian attorney.
Instead of helping him work through the stressors he was dealing with, the Lincoln’s commanding officer moved to boot him from the Navy, according to the sailor and Stephanie Kral, a lawyer he later hired to fight the separation.
“I went to get help thinking it would be the best thing for me,” the sailor told Navy Times earlier this year. “It’s turned into a battle for my career.”
As the service struggles with long wait times to see mental health professionals, and as suicides haunt crews across the fleet, the Lincoln’s attempt to kick a sailor out who sought help reveals the tension between sailor well-being and making the mission.
“There is a disconnect between the general officers and senior enlisted leaders who say they want to end the stigma of mental health treatment and the first-level commanding officers who don’t have the time or willingness to put those words into action,” said Kral, a former Air Force attorney.
Records provided by Kral show that the ship’s psychologist drafted an administrative separation, or ADSEP, recommendation for the sailor on Dec. 10, 2021 — 16 days after he first sought help — and cited a regulation that offers little recourse for junior sailors.
Lincoln’s commanding officer, Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, approved the recommendation and the sailor was notified Dec. 28, 2021, that he would be forced out of the Navy, records show.
“I don’t want to get out of the Navy,” the sailor recalled telling the psychologist as she drafted up the paperwork to kick him out. “I’m just looking for help.”
The ADSEP recommendation states that the sailor’s condition “is so severe that the member’s ability to function effectively in the military environment is significantly impaired.”
Kral questioned how the ship’s psychologist could make such a determination after just two visits with her client.
She also notes that the ADSEP regulation citied as justification for the separation states that a commanding officer “must provide the member reasonable time to overcome the deficiencies, if possible.”
Grant Khanbalinov, a retired Navy chief who has spent his downtime helping suicidal sailors and shipmates struggling with mental health, said young sailors have several reasons why they are hesitant to seek help:
“Is the chain of command going to look at them in a negative light for getting help? Are people going to talk shit to them for getting help? And the other is that they’re going to lose their career.”
Kral provided to Navy Times a copy of the ADSEP notification records that Lincoln’s command handed down to the junior sailor, as well as other correspondence, for this report.
Those records show the ADSEP recommendation was reviewed and approved by an unidentified admiral at the Navy Medicine Region West command.
Navy Times interviewed the sailor and granted his anonymity request, due to his fears that speaking out would impact his future Navy career prospects.
The Navy declined to comment on the specifics of the sailor’s case, citing privacy laws.
But Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a spokesman for Lincoln’s operational command, U.S. 3rd Fleet, said in a statement that “participation in care resources is routinely promoted and encouraged and all service members are afforded the opportunity to participate in care.”
“All separation of Sailors from active duty is done in strict accordance with applicable guidance and procedures, to include evaluation and recommendation by a board of medical providers and in certain circumstances Flag medical officer review,” Robertson said earlier this year.
After being served his ADSEP notice, the sailor decided to fight it and hired Kral.
But several months later, for reasons that remain unclear to the sailor or his attorney, the Navy stopped the separation effort and notified him in June that he would return to Lincoln.
That Navy email, a copy of which was provided to Navy Times, notes that the petty officer “decided to stay in the Navy.”
Attorney Kral disputes that characterization as “wholly inaccurate.”
“He never expressed a desire to separate at all,” she said in an email. “That he was returned to the ship means they dropped the ADSEP effort somewhere along the way. We have no idea where that happened.”
The sailor said he hopes that telling his story will help shed light on the mental health challenges facing junior sailors, an issue that attracted renewed scrutiny earlier this year when news emerged of a rash of sailor suicides among the crew of the aircraft carrier George Washington.
Sixty-three active-duty sailors died by suicide this year as of Dec. 6, according to Navy data, up from 59 in 2021 but less than the 74 and 65 sailors who took their own lives in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
“I’ve been in three years, I’ve seen a lot of suicide at both commands I’ve been at, with the junior guys,” the sailor told Navy Times. “I get the Navy, we’re all in a way replaceable.”
Kral decried the method by which Lincoln’s command tried to kick her client out of the service, and the fact that junior sailors can so easily “be kicked out with the stroke of a commanding officer’s pen.”
She alleged that the ship’s command opted to boot her client so that there would be one less thing to worry about before the ship deployed in January, instead of helping him work through his problems.
“It is easier than taking the time to find the right resources or allow them to go through a simple program of therapy and treatment for something that is a temporary mental health issue,” she said.
‘Going through a rough patch’
The ship’s psychologist, listed in paperwork provided by Kral as Lt. Cmdr. Ann Hummel, cited Naval Military Personnel Manual section 1900-120 as the justification for separating the sailor in December 2021.
That section of the manual, known in the Navy as the MILPERSMAN, states that a sailor with less than six years of service can be separated at the commander’s discretion for “medical conditions not amounting to a disability.”
Sailors with less than six years facing such an ADSEP are not afforded the right to take their case before a board for adjudication.
Involuntary separations under section 1900-120 apply if members’ ability to do their job is impacted, and if they are non-deployable, but it can’t be used if a separation is based on “unsatisfactory performance or conduct.”
Navy Personnel Command officials said they do not track data regarding how many sailors have been separated under 1900-120.
Hummel did not respond to requests for comment for this report.
The petty officer was left in San Diego for Lincoln’s seven-month deployment, which wrapped up in August, as his case played out.
“Going through a rough patch and asking for help shouldn’t be the end of someone’s career,” Kral said.
‘I want to get help, I want to be better.’
After the back-to-back Theodore Roosevelt deployments, the petty officer had been hoping for some shore time.
Big Navy had other needs and other plans.
“When I got to the Lincoln, I was thinking I was going to be able to come home and back to a normal life, and not go right back out to sea,” he recalled. “That’s not what happened.”
He had felt he wasn’t quite right during the TR deployments and recalled worrying constantly about his wife and parents.
The sailor arrived home with the TR in May 2021, took a few weeks of leave and felt better.
Then he checked in aboard Lincoln the following month.
According to the petty officer’s Dec. 28 separation notification, he first came to the carrier’s mental health department for help on Nov. 25, less than a month before he was notified that the command wanted to give him the boot.
For reasons that remain unclear, he was only seen by a chief hospital corpsman and not the ship’s psychologist during that first visit.
He knew he needed to talk with someone, but described his two mental health visits aboard the ship as “very quick sit downs.”
“I really wasn’t able to talk about much,” the petty officer recalled. “I’d be asked a question and was pretty much quickly cut off by another question, without really answering the last question. So, that made it tough to speak.”
The petty officer expressed concern about his “sea duty schedule,” given that he had already done two deployments in less than three years in the Navy and was about to get underway with the Lincoln again.
“I’m just under so much stress,” the petty officer said, according to the clinical history portion of the ADSEP notification record.
“I want to get help,” he told Hummel. “I want to be better.”
While the petty officer worried about being apart from his family, that record indicates he denied any suicidal ideation.
The petty officer “was offered treatment and support resources,” according to the ADSEP record, but Kral and the sailor say that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Instead, they contend he was offered medication and phone apps instead of substantive treatment.
He said he was told he wouldn’t be able to be seen again for six weeks.
That’s because, as the petty officer understood it, the ship’s psychologist “was so backed up” with sailors in need. He left that Nov. 25, 2021, appointment “pretty upset.”
An hour after leaving mental health, the petty officer was brought back by his chief, who had found him crying in his berthing, according to the sailor and records.
That led to time with the ship’s psychologist, and he sat down for “an acute evaluation.”
The petty officer stated “that his goal is to ‘get off the ship,’ and that ‘being flown off the ship is the only solution to [his] problems,” the ship’s psychologist Hummel wrote.
Kral disputed that characterization of events in a February rebuttal letter sent to Bauernschmidt, Lincoln’s commanding officer.
“(The petty officer) attempted to explain to LCDR Hummel that a third deployment in two years would be detrimental to his mental health,” Kral wrote. “This is a completely and utterly reasonable concern for literally anyone in the Navy, yet LCDR Hummel oversimplifies the issue as him wanting to ‘get off the ship.’”
The petty officer said he wanted to go ashore for treatment.
“They just looked at it as another sailor trying to get off the ship because I didn’t want to do a deployment,” he recalled. “I had just done back to backs with all the workups and the underway. I was struggling.”
Hummel wrote that the sailor further attributed his issues to a “toxic work environment” and “denied interest in or seeking of any other type of help or support.”
In her rebuttal, Kral wrote that the support mentioned by Hummel was “the mental health apps and medication she immediately offered him in lieu of actually treating him.”
‘I’m not here to bullshit you’
After Lincoln returned to port on Dec. 3, 2021, following a pre-deployment underway, the petty officer sought help at Navy Medical Center San Diego the next day, “explaining that ship’s medical was insufficient for addressing his needs,” according to the ADSEP notification.
He completed a mental health screening on Dec. 6, where he reported being “anxious and depressed … due to occupational stressors.”
The petty officer was diagnosed with adjustment disorder with anxiety and went to see Hummel again on Dec. 10, 2021, “for a fitness for duty evaluation.”
In her rebuttal, Kral wrote that Hummel only spoke with the petty officer twice, and that the second visit “was for the express purpose of drafting up a separation recommendation.”
“She could not possibly have diagnosed a chronic adjustment disorder in that amount of time,” Kral wrote. “It defies logic and common sense that a career-ending diagnosis can get made without any treatment.”
According to Hummel’s summary, the petty officer said he was “not deployable,” and that he had worried about what would happen to his family during the TR deployments.
The petty officer relayed that he was not suicidal, but “might get there,” according to the summary.
She asked if he felt unfit for deployment, and he said he did.
“When presented with the separation recommendation, (the petty officer) stated he believes ‘it is for the best,” Hummel wrote.
The petty officer denied Hummel’s characterization of the meeting and told Navy Times he just wanted time to get himself squared away.
Hummel then began typing up a separation recommendation, according to the petty officer.
“I had just explained to her for about five minutes why I didn’t want to be separated,” he said. “I’m not here to dip out on anything. … I’m not here to bullshit you. I’m not lying about anything.”
Hummel wrote that the sailor’s “prognosis if retained is poor.”
“(The petty officers’) deterioration in the shipboard environment, including self-reported anticipated development of suicidality for which he expects he may not seek help, present significant risk for self and command,” Hummel wrote. “His condition precludes overcoming the deficiency.”
Kral wrote that her client’s distress could be expected given his deployments and family issues.
“(The petty officer) has shown no issues with his work performance,” she wrote. “His concern was the stress of a third deployment in rapid succession. Being temporarily non-deployable does not render the condition ‘so severe that the member’s ability to function effectively in the military environment is significantly impaired.’”
The attorney noted in that February rebuttal that her client still had not received any mental health assistance from the Navy at that point.
The sailor told Navy Times he just wants to excel at his job, but that couldn’t happen until he got a handle on the stressors in his life, from inside and outside the Navy.
“We can’t do that if we aren’t mentally at 100 percent,” he said. “I think Big Navy forgets that.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at [email protected].