A mental illness diagnosis could lead to expulsion for sailors who want to work the nuclear reactors powering subs and aircraft carriers. They often mask their struggles instead of seeking help, current and former sailors said.
GOOSE CREEK, S.C. — Nuclear operators are considered the Navy’s “best and brightest,” with only the top-scoring applicants gaining acceptance into the prestigious training program. But a dozen current and former nuclear-trained sailors, as well as loved ones of such operators who have died by suicide, said the unique challenges and pressures of the job have led some to suffer from severe mental health issues beginning at the school and extending well beyond graduation.
About 3,000 people get selected annually for the rigorous, nearly two-year program at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, where people learn to operate the nuclear reactors that power submarines and aircraft carriers. To entice people to enter the demanding and highly specialized program, the South Carolina school boasts career advancement perks in the civilian and Naval world, and promises the biggest monetary bonuses the Navy offers.
But the potential rewards sometimes come with a significant toll. Five sailors and instructors assigned to the school have died by suicide since 2018, including one as recently as October, and there were 24 other suicide attempts in the same time frame, the Navy said. That rate of attempts and suicides is higher than the national average.
“I did the best that I could, but it piled on me so much I couldn’t take it anymore,” said Megan Johnson, 21, who said she tried to kill herself twice during her two years in the program.
In a statement, Capt. Scott McGinnis, the commanding officer of the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, said officials at the school “take every suicide very seriously and seek to learn from every one of these sad events.”
“Our curriculum is rigorous and the nature of our work is difficult, but our country’s national security depends on the performance of our aircraft carriers and submarines,” McGinnis said. “However, nothing is more important than our Sailors’ health, especially mental health.”
The numbers alone might not capture the breadth of the mental health struggles among students and instructors in the nuclear program. Instructors, students and their loved ones said nuclear-trained sailors, known in the field as nukes, often avoid counseling and mask their struggles out of fear of getting a mental health diagnosis that would lead to their expulsion.
Douglas Bainbridge, an Electrician’s Mate First Class who taught at the school from 2017 to 2021, said people are “terrified” to admit they may be suffering from mental health issues because they fear they could lose a job they’ve invested years on. “No amount of counselors is going to address the underlying issue,” he said.
“They’d rather suffer and still be a nuke than go and get the help they need,” said the spouse of a former nuclear student who struggled with suicidal ideation and depression before transferring out. The spouse asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. “Sometimes they wait too long, and that’s what breaks them.”
For some staff members, it was normal to find unresponsive students and bring them to the hospital, one current and one former nuclear instructor said, adding that they’re trained to scan students’ faces in class to identify anyone who may be struggling, as well as keep their eyes peeled when walking around campus, especially at night.
“You have to be ready to respond when you see a body,” Bainbridge said.
The Navy confirmed that one nuclear student and two staff members took their own lives in 2019, while another staff member died by suicide in January 2021. Most recently, a student died by suicide in October 2022, the Navy said, adding that there were no suicides in 2018 and 2020 and that the suicide rate was less than .00031% over the last five years.
From 2018 to 2022, the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command averaged 150 attempts and 31 suicides per 100,000 people, according to an NBC News analysis of data provided by the Navy. That’s more than two times higher than the national suicide rate of 13.5 per 100,000 in 2020, the most recent year with complete federal data.
Mental health struggles have also been seen in other Naval commands. Four sailors assigned to Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center — which maintains military ships and is based in Norfolk, Virginia — died by suicide within weeks of each other in October and November, the Navy said.
The deaths came about six months after the Navy said three sailors assigned to the USS George Washington aircraft carrier killed themselves within a week in April. On Jan. 23, another sailor assigned to the USS George Washington died by suicide, according to the Navy and the Newport News Police Department.
A grueling program
The nuclear academic program is “widely acknowledged” as the most demanding in the U.S. military, the Navy says on its website.
On top of spending about 45 hours a week in the classroom — mastering subjects like nuclear physics and engineering — students can be mandated to study for another 10 to 35 hours on their own, its website says. The mandated study time varies depending on a student’s academic performance.
In a statement, Lt. Andrew Bertucci, a Navy spokesperson, said it is “very rare” for a student to be assigned more than 25 hours of study and that the average 45 hour-week includes both classroom instruction and mandated study hours.
Johnson and others interviewed said that wasn’t rare and that students who have fallen the most behind are pulling up to 16-hour days at the school because the program materials are confidential and can’t leave the premises.
“It’s complete sensory deprivation,” said Johnson, who was at the school from 2019 to 2021 but did not complete the program and is no longer in the military.
Jacob Slocum was 17 when he signed up for the Navy and initially didn’t want to pursue the nuclear route. But his mother, Kimberly McInerney, said he scored so high on his entry exam that the Navy flashed a $16,000 sign-on bonus, which would have seemed like a lot to a teenager.
“They pushed and they pushed and they pushed him, and finally, he said, ‘OK I’ll do the nuke program’,” McInerney said. “And it was the worst decision he made in his life.”
Today, the Navy offers $38,000 to active-duty nuclear recruits — its biggest enlistment bonus — as well as thousands of dollars in additional annual payments just for being a nuke and up to $100,000 to some who re-enlist.
Besides meeting physical standards and requirements for a security clearance, enlisted applicants must be high school graduates who have scored in the top percentile in the military’s aptitude exam, the Navy said.
Of the roughly 3,000 people who get accepted into the nuclear training program each year, about 2,700 of them complete it, the Navy said.
Bainbridge said he noticed a spike in suicide attempts about halfway into the first phase of the program, known as “A” school, where enlisted students have to memorize the basics of their specialties in about three to six months, depending on their trade.
After a short break they begin power school, where they spend about six months mastering multiple subjects and are hit with a torrent of information at once.
The program concludes after an additional six months of hands-on training at a facility.
“It’s a tough school,” said Patrick Caserta, a former Navy recruiter who retired in 2006 and whose son was in the Navy but not part of the nuclear program when he died by suicide in 2018.
The Navy said most of the 10% who do not make it through the program are able to choose another specialty and continue serving. The graduates go on to join about 13,000 trained nuclear operators, who make up 4.7% of the entire fleet.
“All that prestige,” Caserta said. “They’re basing their whole futures on this school.”
Slocum, 23 and from Illinois, finished nuclear training in Goose Creek, where the school is located, in 2019. Once aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, he was constantly punished with longer work hours and cleaning duties for being behind on his continuing education requirements, his family said.
“We knew that he was struggling academically, emotionally and mentally,” his mother said. “They would layer punishment on top of punishment on top of punishment. He was constantly behind. It was so hard for him to catch up.”
Slocum took his life on the ship on Dec. 5, 2022, according to the Kitsap County Medical Examiner’s office, which investigated his death.
‘Almost impossible demands’
John Paul Fritz, 29, was seven months away from his wedding when he died by suicide on Jan. 8, 2019. His fiancé, Mikaela Dalke, said she noticed a change in his demeanor after he became an instructor at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in 2017.
“It was a weird shift,” Dalke said. “When he was at the school, I would see him most evenings, but it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t the same.”
Fritz, who joined the Navy in 2009, often told Dalke how difficult it was to be in the nuclear field, both when he was stationed on the USS Florida, sometimes pulling 48-hour shifts on the submarine, and when he was at the school.
Dalke said the suicides and attempts at the school weighed “heavy” on her partner, and that his job stressors ate away at him.
“They have these almost impossible demands on their students and their instructors,” she said. “But there’s not anywhere for them to go.”
The Navy did not comment on Dalke’s claims, but said in a statement to NBC News that it has made significant investments in mental health resources at the nuclear school, especially after a dedicated effort in 2018 to destigmatize mental health issues and increase availability to help.
There are a dozen mental health professionals on site and several more resources available a short walk away, Bertucci, the Navy spokesperson, said.
However, to ensure the safe operation of the Navy’s nuclear reactors, Bertucci said some medical conditions, including anxiety disorders and suicide attempts, do disqualify sailors from nuclear duty, but that a waiver “may be considered once a service member’s condition is stable.”
A former nuclear student, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation because he is still in the Navy, said he had to leave the program in 2021 after he sought help for his mental health and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
“There was no other way around it,” he said. “I would rather be alive and functional than do a job that I know I will definitely kill myself if I keep doing it.”
Fritz also sought help shortly before he died, Dalke said. He had a couple of sessions with a civilian therapist, then stopped because he feared jeopardizing a career he took a decade to build. “He didn’t want anything to come out,” Dalke said.
Dalke said she was furious with the school and the Navy after Fritz’s death. She was also heartbroken for every other sailor forced to weigh seeking mental health over risking their specialty.
“The sailors are sitting here thinking, is it my job or my life?” she said.
Bertucci and McGinnis said the nuclear school plans to add another clinician and clinical manager to the site next year. Bertucci said the Navy seeks to eliminate suicides by “providing better access to care, empowering a culture of peer-to-peer support and overcoming mental health stigmas.”
“Suicide is a public health issue and everyone in the Navy has a role to play in preventing suicide,” Bertucci said. “We will continue to work to eliminate the negative stereotypes and perceptions that keep our sailors and civilians from seeking help for psychological health concerns.”
Life on a nuclear-powered vessel
Aboard submarines and aircraft carriers, the living conditions become more taxing and are unlike “anything else anywhere,” Bainbridge said.
Nuclear-trained sailors spend the majority of the time below deck, inside dark machinery rooms and reactor plants, where they often work more than 12-hour shifts, see little daylight, get less time off and feel isolated from the rest of the crew, according to a retired Navy chief petty officer who used to work for an aircraft carrier’s Reactor Department.
“They get treated like second-class citizens,” he said. “The ship depends on them. There’s so much pressure on them to keep the nuclear plant running that there’s always work to do.”
The retired chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he led with empathy, checked in on the sailors and granted them time off without alerting his superiors.
“What time do they have to take care of their own personal business or get their mind off work? They don’t,” he said. “Compassion from the chain of command is missing from the Reactor Department. The human factor doesn’t kick in at times.”
Too little regard for humanity is what Slocum’s family said pushed him over the edge. When McInerney visited the nuclear school, she said she saw so many bright and introverted young people that resembled her son.
“That school is full of hundreds of Jacobs,” she said. “It scares the s— out of me because now I feel a responsibility to try to protect those kids.”
On a recent morning in Goose Creek, about 20 miles north of Charleston, as students trickled in and out of the campus food court for their meal break, many speaking on condition of anonymity said they believed there was a mental health crisis at the command.
“It’s stressful,” said one sailor, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
After failing more than once, the sailor said he was in the process of transitioning out of the nuclear program.
“It’s better for me,” he said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
Source: NBC News