Desperate to leave: Sailors face lack of options when trying to quit the Navy

The number of sailors who deserted the Navy more than doubled from 2019 to 2021, while desertions in other military branches dropped or stayed flat, pointing to a potential Navy-wide mental health crisis amid a spate of recent suicides, according to experts and federal statistics obtained by NBC News.

Among a fleet of more than 342,000 active sailors, there were 157 new Navy deserters in 2021, compared with 63 in 2019 and 98 in 2020, Navy data shows. The total number of deserters who were still at large in 2021 grew to 166 from 119 in 2019. Most of them were 25 and younger.

“That’s staggering,” said Benjamin Gold, a defense attorney for U.S. service members.

In the wake of several suicides among sailors assigned to the warship the USS George Washington, the new desertion figures highlight the lack of options for sailors when they’re desperate to leave the military but are bound to multiyear contracts that many of them signed just out of high school.

Military law experts said the nearly unbreakable contracts — which can require up to six years of active duty — leave sailors with extreme alternatives: die by suicide or flee and face harsh consequences, including spending years behind bars as patriots-turned-pariahs.

In the last year, at least five George Washington sailors have died by suicide, three of them within a week last month, military officials said. Several current and former George Washington sailors told NBC News that factors that may have contributed to other suicide attempts were a culture in which seeking help isn’t met with the necessary resources, as well as nearly uninhabitable living conditions aboard the ship, including constant construction noise that made sleeping impossible and a lack of hot water and electricity.

In May 2021, Hannah Crisostomo, an aviation boatswain’s mate handler on the George Washington, attempted suicide on the heels of her first anniversary with the Navy.

Crisostomo had reached her breaking point after having constantly been berated for things that were out of her control. But due to a binding five-year agreement she signed when she was a 17-year-old senior in high school, resigning with two weeks’ notice wasn’t an option.

“There is no easy option,” said Crisostomo, who was on life support for eight days after her suicide attempt. She left the Navy in October on an honorable discharge with a medical condition.

If she stopped showing up to work without permission, the Navy would flag an unauthorized absence, or UA, kicking off a series of grave Navy protocols.

On the fifth day of her absence, she would have stopped getting paid, and her family would have gotten a letter calling for her immediate surrender. After 30 days — or earlier if leaders had reason to believe Crisostomo didn’t intend to return or was high risk — she would have been declared a deserter. Crisostomo would have been entered into the FBI’s wanted persons database, and a federal warrant would have been issued for her arrest.

Any traffic stop while she was on the run could have ended in her return to the Navy, which could then have punished her with jail time or a court-martial. And because there is no statute of limitations, the Navy could have chosen to pursue her forever.

Nearly 150 deserters were returned to the Navy last year, the most in the last five years, data shows. Fifty-nine deserters were returned in 2020, compared with 79 the year before.
The number of sailors who deserted the Navy more than doubled from 2019 to 2021, while desertions in other military branches dropped or stayed flat, pointing to a potential Navy-wide mental health crisis amid a spate of recent suicides, according to experts and federal statistics obtained by NBC News.

Among a fleet of more than 342,000 active sailors, there were 157 new Navy deserters in 2021, compared with 63 in 2019 and 98 in 2020, Navy data shows. The total number of deserters who were still at large in 2021 grew to 166 from 119 in 2019. Most of them were 25 and younger.

“That’s staggering,” said Benjamin Gold, a defense attorney for U.S. service members.

In the wake of several suicides among sailors assigned to the warship the USS George Washington, the new desertion figures highlight the lack of options for sailors when they’re desperate to leave the military but are bound to multiyear contracts that many of them signed just out of high school.

Military law experts said the nearly unbreakable contracts — which can require up to six years of active duty — leave sailors with extreme alternatives: die by suicide or flee and face harsh consequences, including spending years behind bars as patriots-turned-pariahs.

“They feel trapped,” said Lenore Yarger, a resource counselor with the GI Rights Hotline, a nonprofit nongovernmental group that specializes in military discharges.

‘No easy option’
Of the 152 Navy deserters who were still at large as of May 9, the Navy said, two are from the USS George Washington. One of the sailors deserted the aircraft carrier, which is docked in a Virginia shipyard, about five months ago; the other fled in March 2021.

In the last year, at least five George Washington sailors have died by suicide, three of them within a week last month, military officials said. Several current and former George Washington sailors told NBC News that factors that may have contributed to other suicide attempts were a culture in which seeking help isn’t met with the necessary resources, as well as nearly uninhabitable living conditions aboard the ship, including constant construction noise that made sleeping impossible and a lack of hot water and electricity.

In May 2021, Hannah Crisostomo, an aviation boatswain’s mate handler on the George Washington, attempted suicide on the heels of her first anniversary with the Navy.

Crisostomo had reached her breaking point after having constantly been berated for things that were out of her control. But due to a binding five-year agreement she signed when she was a 17-year-old senior in high school, resigning with two weeks’ notice wasn’t an option.

“There is no easy option,” said Crisostomo, who was on life support for eight days after her suicide attempt. She left the Navy in October on an honorable discharge with a medical condition.

If she stopped showing up to work without permission, the Navy would flag an unauthorized absence, or UA, kicking off a series of grave Navy protocols.

On the fifth day of her absence, she would have stopped getting paid, and her family would have gotten a letter calling for her immediate surrender. After 30 days — or earlier if leaders had reason to believe Crisostomo didn’t intend to return or was high risk — she would have been declared a deserter. Crisostomo would have been entered into the FBI’s wanted persons database, and a federal warrant would have been issued for her arrest.

Any traffic stop while she was on the run could have ended in her return to the Navy, which could then have punished her with jail time or a court-martial. And because there is no statute of limitations, the Navy could have chosen to pursue her forever.

Nearly 150 deserters were returned to the Navy last year, the most in the last five years, data shows. Fifty-nine deserters were returned in 2020, compared with 79 the year before.

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