A troubling new statistic shows U.S. Navy desertions are soaring and may point to an even more significant issue of an emerging mental health crisis in the service.
NBC News reports the Navy has 342,000 active sailors. In 2021, there were 157 deserters, compared with 98 in 2020 and 63 in 2019. The total number of deserters who remain at large last year increased to 166 from 119 in 2019. Most of them were under the age of 25.
An expert who reviewed the federal statistics obtained by NBC described the trend as shocking.
"That's staggering," said Benjamin Gold, a defense attorney for U.S. service members.
Navy officials couldn't explain what was causing the desertion rate to skyrocket. They pointed to "many different stressors" in the service.
Other military branches didn't observe soaring desertions during the last several years. In fact, desertions in the Army and Marine Corps declined. The Coast Guard didn't have any.
The average active-duty enlisted age was 21.6 years. Many at this stage in life don't plan too far out and aren't expecting harsh conditions upon joining the military. In fact, servicemen and women sign a multi-year contract that is nearly impossible to break. For a young person who joined the military and their expectations were immediately crushed, it's near impossible to leave.
"It's hard for a young person at that age to grasp the amount of power and control that their employer has over their lives," said Rick Jahnkow, an organizer with the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth, a nonprofit group. "They don't understand the commitment."
The jump in desertions follows a string of deaths, many of which are suspected suicides, outlining rising mental health issues plaguing the service.
Over the last year, seven crew members of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier have died, including four by suicide.
This all suggests that youngsters who signed up for the military are locked in unbreakable contracts that some fear trapped if things don't turn out the way they expected. This may cause them to become a deserter or, in extreme circumstances, take their own life.