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The Navy has begun to look into the service's high rate of suicide

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

The Navy continues to search for underlying causes behind the service's high rate of suicide. Advocates point to clusters of sailors on limited duty, saying it fuels hopelessness and actually leads to devastating consequences. Steve Walsh with WHRO in Norfolk sends us this report.

ROBERT DECKER: I kind of figured after a stint there with the hospital that he was on the rebound and he was going to be all right.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Robert Decker talked to his son Kody only hours before the 22-year-old sailor died by suicide.

DECKER: I did not know, right up to the day. I actually had lunch with him and his wife and my grandson that day. You know, I hugged him, said, I love you, like I always do.

WALSH: Kody was one of four sailors assigned to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center in Norfolk who died of suicide last year. Last summer, he checked himself into the Naval hospital in Portsmouth with symptoms of depression. He was removed from his ship and placed on limited duty at MARMAC.

DECKER: MARMAC was the dumping ground for limited duty sailors. He would muster in in the morning, and he'd go sit in his car. That's what he did.

WALSH: Decker says his son would watch videos, call his family.

DECKER: Yeah, he's sitting in the car until it's time to go home. That was the answer to my son who needed help. There was no help.

WALSH: Sometimes he would talk to other sailors who were also on limited duty. They were going to doctor's appointments, waiting until they were again eligible to go back to their ships or, in other cases, be released from the Navy. At times, roughly 6% of sailors are nondeployable, meaning they can't be assigned to ships. Instead, the Navy places them on limited duty with a shore command, says Bryan Clark, a retired Navy commander and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

BRYAN CLARK: There's no place for these guys to go, and basically, they're just sort of on paper assigning these people to an appropriate unit. But they're just floating around. Having that lack of structure is probably not a good situation. I'm sure it's - it contributes to these guys' deterioration of mental health.

WALSH: Clark says programs that were stood up during 20 years of war are being cut. It comes at a time when a study by Navy Medicine released in November found the number of sailors and Marines on limited duty is rising. More than a third of the Navy's cases involve mental health issues.

KAYLA ARESTIVO: Summertime is hot.

WALSH: Kayla Arestivo is a private counselor who runs Trails for Purpose. She was invited to a mental health stand-down after the four sailors died. She found out that there were hundreds of sailors on limited duty in the same command.

ARESTIVO: That was one of the biggest flags that I raised - is like, why do we have 500 limited duty sailors in one spot? Talk about toxic work environment.

WALSH: More than half of all limited duty cases are clustered around just four large Navy hospitals - two in San Diego, Camp Lejeune, N.C. and Portsmouth Naval Hospital outside Norfolk area. Arestivo says she was told there were other commands in the Norfolk area with dozens of sailors on limited duty.

ARESTIVO: We have to provide some place where they can stay, I get that. But it's this holding pen rather than, like, we're putting you here because we want to care for you, and this is how we're going to care for you.

WALSH: Arestivo says each person should be assigned someone, so they don't get lost in the cracks while they're on limited duty. In the meantime, the Navy's report on the deaths of the four sailors at the maintenance center in Norfolk are due out later this year. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in Norfolk.

LIMBONG: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 9-8-8 Suicide in Crisis Lifeline - just those three digits, 9-8-8. If you're a veteran, dial 9-8-8, then press 1 or text 838255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.