CT senators demand Navy improve mental health care following death of Shelton sailor, others

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SHELTON — U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal are demanding accountability following the death by suicide of three sailors — including Shelton’s Xavier Sandor — on the USS George Washington last April. 

Connecticut’s senators sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro Thursday, stating that Sandor’s suicide was the result of a “cascading series of events that forced a young man to believe he had no way out."

In the letter, Blumenthal and Murphy said Sandor's death was tragic, but preventable.

They specifically reference the uninhabitable conditions aboard the ship during its refueling and complex overhaul, and the barriers sailors faced to receiving mental health care, including a two-month backlog for routine mental health screenings and fears it would affect their future career opportunities. 

“There were multiple mistakes made by the USS George Washington’s leadership and warnings that could and should have prevented it,” the senators state in the letter. “It is completely intolerable for the Navy to place sailors onboard a ship with these conditions and tremendous barriers to accessing care and support.”

The two wrote that “The Navy must immediately reform regulations to establish unwaivable requirements for manning, screening, and access to mental health care during long periods of shipyard maintenance.” 

Sandor was 19 when he died on April 15, just months after his deployment to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. His death was part of a cluster of suicides aboard the ship. 

His parents, John Sandor and Mary Graft, have been calling for answers for months, saying that the Navy failed their son and their family. 

“Every day is a struggle for us, knowing he's never coming home,” Graft said. “How could we ever feel normal again when a part of us is gone, forever? We love and miss Xavier so much it's painful.” 

Lt. Gabrielle Dimaapi, public affairs officer with the Secretary of the Navy's office, said the office received Murphy and Blumenthal's letter and will respond.

“Suicide prevention is an ongoing investment,” Dimaapi told Hearst Connecticut Media in a statement. “We will not wait to make changes that will save lives."

Dimaapi added that the Navy "is committed to creating a protective environment that promotes trust and connection to reduce suicidal ideations and behaviors.”

The Navy is also making significant investments to further department-wide suicide prevention efforts, Dimaapi said, noting that 15,000 sailors were recently trained as "Suicide Safe Responders and leverage them as front-line resources in suicide prevention."

Dimaapi said, under the Secretary of the Navy’s direction, a suicide prevention working group is underway to identify actionable measures to further develop Navy suicide prevention strategic plans and policy in coordination with stakeholders from the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Secretariat.

“The working group is conducting a focused review on the areas of leader development, mental health and non-medical counseling services, suicide prevention programs, promoting a culture of safety and suicide related data to strengthen and promote the resiliency of Service members and their families,” Dimaapi said.

In a statement, Murphy called Sandor's death "devastating."

“To lose a bright young man who had just gotten his start in the Navy and in life is devastating, but the infuriating reality is that his death was preventable,” Murphy said, in a statement to Hearst Connecticut Media.

“These sailors should never have been living on this ship in these conditions without proper access to mental health care and support,” Murphy added. “While we can’t bring Xavier or any of the other sailors back, I hope their deaths have made clear that the Navy must do better to protect the health and safety of the men and women who serve our country.”

In their letter, Blumenthal and Murphy cited the Navy’s recently released report on the April 2022 suicides, stating that it "exposes significant failures of our collective responsibility to care and provide for the men and women who volunteer to defend our nation.” 

The senators are calling on the Navy to go further than the recommendations made in the investigation report released last month and to reform requirements governing the shipyard lives of sailors. 

According to the senators, the USS George Washington’s shipboard environment was hazardous and noisy with constant shipyard operations and quiet hours only from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Electrical power, heating, air conditioning and hot water were frequently interrupted across various sections of the ship, sometimes for weeks. 

Welfare and recreation services, such as television, were not available onboard, the senators state, and there were limited places to sit and relax.

The parking lot for the crew's personal vehicles was more than a mile away, and Sandor, as with many other sailors, chose to sleep in his car rather than sleep onboard the ship, they wrote. 

"When asked about these concerns during the Navy’s investigation, the ship’s leadership were unaware of many of the challenges facing the ship’s crew,” the senators state in their letter. “This is simply unacceptable, and the Navy should immediately reform regulations for crew move-aboard to minimize exposing sailors to this environment until strictly necessary. 

They added that sailors whose tours of duty would consist entirely of time on a ship undergoing maintenance “should be provided permanent housing and never required to move onboard."  

The Navy report states that as a first-term sailor onboard his first ship, increased attention and care should have been devoted to ensuring proper assimilation and mentorship. 

The report further states that “command members knew or should have known that (Sandor) was experiencing displeasure with Navy life and could have intervened to help him better cope or seek out available support services. Missing a scheduled meeting with (a supervising office), remaining alone in berthing, sleeping in his car, and violating the command's leave and liberty policy were all ‘red flags’ that indicated (Sandor) was having problems.” 

Murphy and Blumenthal stated that their findings show access to and screening for mental health concerns failed because “the staff was overwhelmed, under-resourced and separated from the ship’s crew."

Sailors seeking routine mental health screenings, the senators stated, experienced waits of up to two months for care due to a significant backlog and an under-resourced ship’s psychologist. The ship did not have both deployed resiliency counselors, or DRCs, assigned to the ship and their offices were located off ship, about a three-mile walk away from the ship. 

“Further, many sailors didn’t understand what the DRC did, didn’t know who the DRC was or where the DRC was located; even if they did, many sailors were hesitant to take that much time off to get counseling,” the letter stated. “Members of (Sandor’s) division reported they were hesitant to seek mental health treatment through Navy channels due to concerns it would affect future career opportunities.” 

The senators also stated that leadership, specifically leading petty officers, didn’t have time to deal with mental health issues of their subordinates.