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USS Roosevelt suicide investigation uncovers toxic leadership

Nuclear qualified sailors maintain breaker on USS Roosevelt. May 9, 2019. Department of Defense
Nuclear qualified sailors maintain breaker on USS Roosevelt. May 9, 2019. Department of Defense

Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide. Please read and listen with discretion.

Jacob Slocum, 23, died by suicide Dec. 5, 2022, while the nuclear electrician's mate was on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt. 

A Navy investigation into the suicide of a sailor points to a toxic culture in the carrier’s Reactor Department and is the latest investigation into a ship’s conditions following a suicide. 

The Navy is trying to get at the root cause of suicides, especially after three sailors died in one month in 2022, on board the USS George Washington, while the carrier was in maintenance in Newport News. The Pentagon’s latest report on suicide says nearly half of all cases involve troops who were having issues in the workplace or problems tied to the military judicial system.

A year after his death, Slocum’s mother, Kim McInerney said she is looking back on some of the things he told her about the Navy. 

“I just remember him stating that he felt that he made the wrong choice,” she said. “Like, ‘I screwed up, Mom. I screwed up. I should have gotten out. I should have never gone nuke.’”

Working with a nuclear reactor aboard an aircraft carrier is one of the most demanding jobs in the Navy. Sailors are highly trained and experts say the staff is under tremendous pressure. 

The USS Roosevelt has deployed three times since 2020, including being sidelined early in the pandemic with the Navy’s first outbreak of COVID-19. The pressure was even worse in 2022, when the aircraft carrier was gearing up to leave the shipyard in Bremerton, Washington after an extended maintenance overhaul. 

Caitlin Ross remembers Slocum in the corridor near the time of his death. She said he looked depressed. 

“You could tell, but a lot of people were struggling,” she said. “It was a really hard time during shipyard, like it was hard on everybody.”

On top of 12-hour days, sailors must pass a number of tests to remain qualified to work around the ship's two nuclear power plants. Slocum had fallen months behind, which meant he would receive mandatory counseling from the chiefs in the department.

The report says some supervisors created a toxic work environment as they pushed sailors to qualify. The names are redacted in the command investigation, but one chief berated Slocum in front of the crew the day he died. 

Ross, a training petty officer at the time, described the strain some leaders placed on the Reactor department”

“Chiefs would counsel, but then they would go way harder than they needed to,” she said. “I hated counseling.  I heard they were pretty tough on them, tough on a lot of people, but especially Jacob.”

Another strategy for pushing sailors to qualify was to put them on “nickels” where they would have to be on duty for five hours and then five hours off, causing people to become chronically sleep deprived, she said. 

Sailors "would rather go back and be deployed to a war"

Teresa Daniel, the dean and professor of Human Resources at Sullivan University in Louisville, researches toxic leadership. In 2019, she interviewed officers at the Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

“People that I interviewed at Fort Leavenworth said I would rather go back and be deployed to a war than have to go back and work for this toxic leader - because of the humiliation,” she said. 

Toxic leaders contribute to the suicide rate in the military, but in that pressurized environment sailors may feel they can’t speak up, Daniel said.

“People are reluctant because they do not trust the system,” she said. “Even the mechanisms that are available for reporting problems people are disinclined to actually use.”

The USS Roosevelt reported a spike in mental health visits in June and July 2022. Almost half of the cases were from the Reactor department. Daniel said a rise in mental health visits is a common red flag for toxic leadership. 

The report says the part of the ship where Slocum worked was supposed to have 88 people, but at the time of his death, there were only 71 people in the department.

 Paul A. Kingsbury is a retired master chief who began his career in nuclear propulsion. In general, he always looks at whether a ship is understaffed when diagnosing personnel problems.  

“You come in shorthanded, maybe you're in a shipyard environment that already sucks to begin with. Frankly, that's not setting you up for success,” said Kingbury, who lives in Hampton Roads and wrote “The Chief Petty Officer’s Guide and The Petty Officers Guide.” 

“If you happen to have that Chief, that's not a good leader and not building a team effectively or not focused on the health of his team or her team - that's when it can go really south.”

The spike in mental health visits on the Roosevelt came after the publicity surrounding the deaths in Norfolk. By late summer, the Reactor Department was required to attend daily briefings on mental health and stress reduction. A mental health stand down for the whole crew was scheduled for only days prior to Slocum’s death, but it was postponed.

On Oct.1, 2022 Slocum was sent to a formal reprimand, called a captain’s mast, to be disciplined for falling farther behind on his qualification process. 

The captain counseled him on time management and Slocum expressed that he didn’t wish to remain in the Navy. He was restricted to the carrier for 40 days. He was also ordered to move out of the barracks onto an aging berthing barge.

He was also told to keep trying to qualify. The commander at the time, Capt. Eric Anduze noted in the report that the ship should find another assignment for Slocum for the two years remaining on this contract if he continued to fail to qualify in the nuclear department.

In fact, the report cites regulation for a process called de-nuking, which outlines the hurdles the Navy puts in place before removing nuclear qualified sailors from the program, including discipline.  Ross, who left the Navy in June for mental health issues, says it's hard for qualified  nuclear sailors to transfer.

“They really don't want to lose nukes once they make it to the fleet because they've proven that they can qualify,” Ross said. “So then they blame it on the boat saying that it's the boat's fault for not making them qualify.”

Two dozen Roosevelt sailors moved or reassigned

Since June 2022, 24 sailors have left the USS Roosevelt for mental health reasons, six from the Reactor department. There were 14 other sailors who were put on shore duty for mental health issues;eight were from the reactor department, according to the Navy’s command investigation. 

In boot camp, Slocum expressed thoughts of suicide but the ships doctors told investigators that he didn’t repeat those concerns during their examinations so he was given a clean bill of health. 

His mother, Kim McInerney, said the ship knew the department had a problem with mental health issues. They should have done more. 

“I feel like, if the captain would have just taken a couple of minutes to really talk to Jacob, Jacob may have opened up a bit more,” she said. ”What is really going on, Jacob? Like, how can we help you?”

The Navy’s report says a small number of people were sanctioned as a result of Jacob Slobum’s death, but faced no court-martial or removal from the Navy. Navy officials have yet to provide further details.  

Slocum’s mother said unless leaders are removed, she fears there will be more cases like her son. 

The findings of the USS Roosevelt investigation were forwarded to  the Quality of Service Cross-Functional Team. The committee was established after the deaths in Norfolk to look ways to bring down the number of suicides in the Navy.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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