The U.S. Navy mandates that a suicide hotline for veterans be accessible from the homepage of every Navy website, but a previously unreported internal audit found that most of the pages reviewed were not in compliance.
Sixty-two percent of the 58 homepages did not comply with Navy regulations for how to display the link to the Veterans Crisis Line, or VCL, which is run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to a 2019 investigation conducted by the Naval Audit Service and obtained by The Intercept via the Freedom of Information Act. Almost three years since the audit, The Intercept has found that many Navy homepages are still missing the required icon linking to a resource that has been shown to help veterans in crisis. In the eight years since the mandate was first introduced, hundreds of sailors and tens of thousands of veterans have killed themselves.
“When suicide crisis links and phone numbers are not prominently advertised on Navy Web sites, there is a missed opportunity to facilitate and encourage Sailors, civilians, and veterans to seek assistance in a critical time of need,” the audit reads.
The White House has been sounding the alarm on suicide among current and former members of the military. In a recent speech, President Joe Biden said that an average of 17 veterans kill themselves every day — meaning that the number of veterans who die by suicide each day is nearly equal to the number of U.S. troops killed in combat in 2020 and 2021 combined.
Military and elected officials are making unprecedented efforts to address suicide in the military. The Defense Department set up an independent panel to assess the scope of the crisis and advise steps toward prevention, while Congress has pushed for bipartisan legislation that would devote billions of dollars to veterans’ mental health as well as improvements to the VCL system that included its incorporation into 988, the suicide hotline formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that launched in July.
“Our country’s military and federal government must ensure this critical lifesaving resource is easily accessible for veterans and active-duty service members in crisis,” Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a Navy veteran who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and spearheaded the changes to the VCL, told The Intercept. “It is unacceptable that a majority of the Navy homepages do not contain the required link to the Veterans Crisis Line.”
The audit report says the Navy Office of Information, or CHINFO, did not provide clear guidance or sufficient oversight to ensure compliance on Navy websites. However, Charlie Spirtos, a Navy spokesperson, told The Intercept that blame lies with individual commanders who have failed to enforce the mandate.
“CHINFO is the lead for developing policy for publicly accessible website content across the Navy, and for maintaining cognizance for content of publicly accessible websites across the Navy,” he wrote in an email. But he said compliance “rests on individual commanders, commanding officers, and officers in charge.” It is not clear how the Navy enforces compliance with the regulations. A Navy spokesperson, speaking on the condition of anonymity, did not have an answer for The Intercept.
Spirtos also said that the nearly 80 websites under CHINFO’s purview were now in compliance with the Navy’s VCL regulations, but after repeated questions from The Intercept, Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, a Navy spokesperson, clarified that an unspecified number of homepages were missing the VCL icon.
“A review and update is underway to ensure all Navy websites contain the logo,” she said.
Since 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has fielded more than 6.2 million calls, providing 1.1 million referrals to VA suicide prevention coordinators and more than 233,000 dispatches of emergency services.
Many veterans have reported that they were able to get the help they needed when calling the hotline. In a 2021 study in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 87 percent of users expressed satisfaction with the VCL, almost 82 percent found it helpful, and nearly 73 percent said that it kept them safe. Of those with suicidal thoughts, almost 83 percent said that calling the hotline helped stop them from killing themselves. A study from earlier this year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that callers had five times greater odds of a reduction in distress, almost five times greater odds of a reduction in suicidal ideation, and 11 times greater odds of a reduction in suicidal urgency by the end of the call.
Research also shows that promoting the VCL increases the likelihood that veterans in crisis will call. A 2016 study of VCL advertising campaigns found that “messaging was associated with help seeking,” which supports significant associations found in a 2014 study between public messaging and an increased awareness and use of crisis lines among veterans.
Since 2014, the Secretary of the Navy has mandated that all Navy homepages contain an icon and link to the Veterans Crisis Line. A 2020 Navy Suicide Prevention Program handbook also states that all Navy websites must display a “Life Is Worth Living” icon, hyperlinked to the Military Crisis Line, or MCL, for active-duty personnel. However, according to Spirtos, that requirement is defunct.
The 2019 Navy audit examined 58 Navy homepages and found that 36 were “noncompliant,” 27 used an outdated “Life Is Worth Living” icon, eight used the VCL icon, four used both icons, one used a “Suicide Prevention” icon, and 18 had no icon at all. (The report does not list which websites were surveyed by auditors.) The audit also discovered that the URL to the required VCL icon within the regulations was broken.
Research shows that promoting the Veterans Crisis Line increases the likelihood that veterans in crisis will call.
The Naval Audit Service found that 23 of 36 noncompliant commands were unaware of the requirement; the other 13 did not respond.
The Naval Audit Service recommended that CHINFO “establish internal controls and oversight to ensure all Navy Web sites display the required Veterans Crisis Line link” by September 30, 2021, to which the Department of the Navy Chief of Information agreed.
But almost one year since the target date passed, the Navy has still failed to comply with its own regulations, according to a follow-up investigation by The Intercept.
When The Intercept began its own survey this spring of 58 Navy homepages — including Navy.mil and some of the largest commands — it found 57 percent without a “Life Is Worth Living” icon, a VCL icon, or a working VCL link.
After reaching out to CHINFO for comment on the findings, compliance radically changed. Screenshots available through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine show that just before or just after The Intercept submitted questions, Naval Special Warfare Command and U.S. Naval Ship Repair Facility and Japan Regional Maintenance Center, for example, did not display the VCL link. Now working links appear on those homepages as well as 48 others surveyed by The Intercept. However, 87 percent of the 58 websites still do not have the VCL icon.
For example, the homepage of Navy.com, the Navy’s recruitment website, lacks both a VCL link and icon. The homepage of the Secretary of the Navy — the office that issued the VCL regulation — provides an outdated “Life Is Worth Living” icon that links to the 988 hotline rather than the VCL.
Spirtos said that since the audit, websites that were once overseen by CHINFO are now on a new web host provided by Defense Media Activity, the Pentagon’s internal media and public relations organization.
“All of these websites comply with the Veterans Crisis Line link requirement,” Spirtos told The Intercept. But Mommsen later acknowledged that while links were present on all the homepages, the VCL logo is not. The Intercept found that out of those 79 websites under Defense Media Activity’s purview, just 17 — or 21.5 percent — fully comply with the VCL regulations.
While the Veterans Crisis Line has been a benefit to many former military personnel, outside experts and government watchdogs for years have highlighted management and quality control issues, including long wait times, crisis calls sent to voicemail, and improperly trained staffers. Recent investigations by the VA Office of Inspector General have also highlighted lethal shortcomings. In 2018, for example, a veteran died of an overdose of alcohol and drugs after speaking to two crisis-line responders who failed to contact local authorities. The next year, a veteran shot and killed a family member after talking with a VCL staffer. The inspector general found that the “responder’s management of … [the] call was insufficient and delayed.”
Congress has taken significant steps to provide resources and improvements to the VCL and mental health care for veterans in general. Last year, Sherrill, the New Jersey representative, helped lead bipartisan efforts to require an outside evaluation of the VCL’s training curriculum, improve responder guidance for high-risk callers, and increase quality control over calls. The efforts also enabled the VCL to become part of 988, which aims to be a more professionalized system that can not only assist callers but also dispatch mobile response teams.
This spring, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that included $13.2 billion in funding for veterans’ mental health, $598 million of which was allocated to suicide prevention outreach. In June, the House passed the Support the Resilience of Our Nation’s Great Veterans Act — known as the STRONG Veterans Act — which mandates improvements to the training of VCL staff, including in the critical areas of risk assessment, lethal means assessment, substance use and overdose risk assessment, referrals to care, and dispatch of emergency services. The legislation also requires the development of enhanced guidance and procedures to respond to callers at high risk of overdose. It is now awaiting action in the Senate.
“Far too many servicemembers return home suffering from the invisible wounds of war, and it’s on us to make sure the Department of Veterans Affairs has the tools it needs to connect those who served with their earned support,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Jon Tester, D-Mont., who wrote the VCL bill within the STRONG Veterans Act, in a June press release.
The Pentagon is also grappling with how to address the military suicide crisis. Between 2016 and 2020, the suicide rate among active-duty service members jumped 33.5 percent, prompting a Government Accountability Office report in April that found gaps in suicide prevention policies, programs, and activities — such as counseling for service members. The Navy was singled out for specific failures in command- and base-level suicide prevention efforts. While the Army and Air Force have, for example, designated a director of psychological health at each base outside the continental United States — as required by Defense Department policy — the Department of the Navy had “not fully done so for Navy and Marine Corps installations,” according to the report. The same month the report was issued, three sailors aboard the Navy’s USS George Washington died by suicide in just one week.
“Suicide is a massive problem for us,” said Russell Smith, master chief petty officer of the Navy, during a congressional hearing in May.
Between 2016 and 2020, the suicide rate among active-duty service members jumped 33.5 percent.
This spring, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the creation of an independent commission to address military suicides. The committee will conduct a review of “relevant suicide prevention and response activities” and report back on necessary policy changes to Austin and the congressional armed services committees.
The Defense Department has expressed support for suicide hotlines for current and former service members. “The VCL/MCL is a vital resource in the military community setting that provides support to individuals in crisis,” Maj. Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesperson, told The Intercept via email. “It provides free and confidential support to veterans and Service members 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”
Whether the Navy will enforce its own VCL regulations remains an open question. Whether the Senate Armed Services Committee — which provides oversight of the U.S. military, including the Department of the Navy — cares to intervene is also unclear. After weeks of failing to respond to emails from The Intercept concerning the Navy audit, Cole Stevens, a committee spokesperson, declined to comment. After multiple follow-ups, Stevens still did not offer comment.
Veterans’ advocates, however, are eager to see the Navy comply with its regulations — and for other service branches to implement similar policies.
“Adding information, phone numbers, or links to the Veterans Crisis Line on service websites is a simple step to increase awareness for those service members, veterans, and family members who are struggling and need assistance,” said Ron Conley, the former national commander of the American Legion and current chair of the veterans association’s committee on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. “The American Legion urges all the military services to include Veterans Crisis Line information on all unit and command homepages.”