NORFOLK, VA (NBC 26) — Lawmakers are demanding answers on Capitol Hill after four Navy sailors died by apparent suicide in a month's time last fall, but progress is being made.
NBC 26 Today anchor MacLeod Hageman traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, and met with a Wisconsin counselor who deploys with sailors and makes their mental health her top priority.
Retired Navy Sailor Kari Bell is serving her country once again, but she's now a resilience counselor and helping sailors on the USS Harry S. Truman.
"I tell them this is like this is your 47-year-old self coming back and teaching your 19-year-old self, like I remember what that was like, and how difficult it was," Bell said.
The Wisconsin native served in the Navy from 1993 to 1997, and she now helps sailors adjust to military life.
"There's a lot of stress that goes along with not be able to talk to family or being in constant connection with spouses or loved ones," Bell said.
Bell says she recently returned from a nearly 10-month deployment that was initially set to last a little more than five months. She admits the added stress was hard on everyone, but she's elated that her entire crew safely returned.
"We're pretty proud of that and finished some really good work. It was long hours, but it was worth it," Bell said.
Bell said the Navy's growth and dedication to sailors and their mental health — even compared to when she served — is eye-opening.
"It's a new Navy," Bell said.
"Back in the 90s, there was a lot going on in the military, and we had reduction enforces going. If you had a mental health or any type of condition that was getting in the way of the mission, you were most likely to get discharged and sent home," Bell said.
But, those times have changed. Not only is the Navy taking a new approach to mental health, but female sailors are offered better opportunities too.
"It's very good to know that I would look very different coming in today of what that would look like in the early '90s. So, coming back years later and seeing this crew that's on an aircraft carrier that's really well integrated and female sailors are very well respected for their job. That's probably been one of my most eye-opening and rewarding experiences," Bell said.
Bell said she's truly happy with how far the Navy has come from when she served more than 25 years ago, and she's confident more improvements will be made.