A Federal Way native’s struggle to find mental health treatment in the U.S. Navy has attracted the attention of a local Congressman and a national advocacy organization.
Michael Gregg sounded eerily quiet on their October phone call, his mother said.
His mother, Farrah Gregg, said she and her son are very close and talk on the phone several times a week. On that October evening, he confided in his mother the words she never expected to hear.
“He said ‘Mama, I almost committed suicide. I worked the night shift and I almost jumped off the boat,’” Farrah Gregg said. Michael Gregg had never been stationed on a Navy ship before and one night during underway, which is a training operations session out at sea in preparation for deployment, he had found himself at a point of the ship where only a thin rope separates an individual from the 40-meter drop to the water below.
“It scared him,” Farrah Gregg said, adding that she asked him to go get help immediately, and he went to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth hospital in Virginia. “I said ‘Baby, go. Go.”
But when Michael Gregg sought help for what would later be diagnosed as severe depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder, he was met with rejection and demotion from commanders of the United States Navy.
“I’m afraid of the Navy now,” Farrah Gregg said. “I don’t trust the Navy.”
A plea for help
Michael Gregg, 24, graduated from Todd Beamer High School in 2016. He enlisted in the Navy in March 2018 and was stationed on the USS Dwight Eisenhower in Virginia.
In mid-October, Michael Gregg checked himself into Portsmouth Naval hospital where he was diagnosed with adjustment disorder, severe anxiety and severe depression, deeming his suitability for continued service as “highly doubtful,” according to doctors’ notes provided to the Mirror.
The following day, Michael Gregg saw the ship’s psychologist and explained his suicidal thoughts. The lieutenant allegedly told him to come back for breathing exercises the next Thursday — 10 days away.
At his October walk-in appointment, Michael was screened by the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) ship psychologist and there was “no indication of an acute risk of ASAN Gregg engaging in suicide-related behavior, and a hospitalization requirement was not indicated,” said Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg, Commander of the Naval Air Force Atlantic.
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has two Fleet and Family Support Center Deployed Resiliency Counselors, chaplains, a psychologist, psychologist technicians, and 65 trained resiliency mentors embarked to support crew health, Cragg said, noting that the USS Eisenhower is committed to ensuring all sailors receive immediate, holistic and well-rounded mental health care.
Michael Gregg said he was presented with three options, including taking medication, which was discouraged due to his religion; a six-day therapy session; or voluntary commitment on the ship.
Each option had Michael Gregg returning to the USS Eisenhower, and doctors had determined the ship was a trigger point for his suicidal thoughts.
“I’ve never heard of somebody going back the third time in two days after being rejected to still be rejected,” Farrah Gregg said of her son’s multiple attempts to seek professional help.
The alleged lack of help sent Michael into a depressive state where he could not leave his bed and would not eat for several days. At this point, Farrah Gregg said, Michael’s lieutenant sent a note to Michael that said he has an unauthorized absence (UA), and if he didn’t return to the ship by Oct. 26, his pay would be cut.
The Naval Military Personnel Manual (MILPERSMAN) sets standard procedures for commands to follow when an enlisted member is absent without proper authority, said Cmdr. Cragg. On the fifth day of an unauthorized absence (UA), the disbursing office will stop all pay allotments and may be determined a deserter after being absent without authority for 30 consecutive days.
Cragg said Michael was informed that his pay would be stopped if he remained absent for more than five days.
“ASAN Gregg absented himself without authority on Oct. 19, 2020. On Nov. 17, 2020, command leadership notified ASAN Gregg that he would be declared a deserter in accordance with standard policy unless he returned to work by November 18, 2020,” Cragg said.
The physical and mental health, safety, and spiritual wellness of all Sailors continues to be a top priority for USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) leadership, said Cragg.
‘They’re going to hurt me, mama’
With her son seemingly out of ways to advocate for himself, Farrah Gregg took a redeye flight from Seattle and landed in Virginia on Oct. 25.
“Your people have failed my son,” Farrah Gregg said of the Navy. “This is why I’m doing it.”
She took her son to Riverside Behavioral Health Center and was issued a five-day excuse as they also diagnosed him with severe depression and anxiety due to the ship.
Farrah and Michael Gregg sought help from psychologist Dr. Mary Lou Rubert of Hampton Mental Health Associates in Virginia. She diagnosed him with major depression, anxiety and PTSD and said he should be medically separated from the ship, according to the doctor’s notes. Rubert wrote a letter to excuse Michael Gregg from work from Nov. 6-17.
Psychologist Dr. William Bates also evaluated Michael Gregg, urging Navy command to assign him shore duty as his progression of panic attacks made him “fear not performing his duties could result in personal injury or injuries to his aviation team and command,” and that “being aboard [the] ship exacerbates symptoms of his mental health disorders.”
Despite the alarm of the psychologists’ notes, the Greggs were told separation from the Navy is a lengthy, time-consuming process that would consist of baby steps.
“Baby steps? It could take two seconds for my son to lose his life,” Farrah Gregg said.
Farrah left Nov. 7. A few days after her departure, Michael was ordered to the ship to sign paperwork pertaining to his offenses. He had a severe panic attack onboard.
On Nov. 16, a lieutenant texted Michael Gregg that if he did not show up the next day, he was going to be arrested under deserter charges. Michael Gregg said he had been back on the ship twice in the last month.
Michael Gregg went to the ship the following day to meet with command staff. After he took a photo of paperwork, Michael says a command staff member allegedly began to yell at him for photographing classified government paperwork.
After that meeting, Michael called his mother again.
“He said ‘Mom, I love you, I’m sorry, I can’t take it,’” Farrah Gregg recalled, voice trembling as she began to cry. “‘I’m going to drive my car off the cliff, I’m going to commit suicide, Mom … they’re going to hurt me, Mama.’”
With his mother’s urging, Michael Gregg checked himself into Portsmouth Naval hospital and remained there until he was released on Nov. 24.
Upon leaving the hospital, Michael was told he had two hours to gather his things and report to the ship. On the ship, Michael Gregg attended Captain’s Mast, a non-judicial punishment used when sailors allegedly commit minor offenses.
On Nov. 24, non-judicial punishment, also known as Captain’s Mast, was imposed on Michael Gregg for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 86 – Absence without leave, Cmdr. Cragg said.
“ASAN Gregg pled guilty to the charged offenses and was awarded forfeiture of one-half month’s pay per month for two months, reduction to the next junior paygrade (E-3), and restriction to the ship for 60 days.”
This order was Michael’s tipping point. His suicidal thoughts returned. He was checked back into the Portsmouth hospital just hours after his initial release on Nov. 24 and was released on Dec. 4.
On Dec. 4, the Commanding Officer exercised his discretion to suspend the restriction portion of the punishment, Cragg said.
On Nov. 28, Civilian Military Defense Counsel Stephen Carpenter wrote to Capt. James Mauldin of the USS Eisenhower refuting the punishment.
“The basis of this appeal is that the punishment of 60 days restriction is disproportionate because this Sailor was struggling with debilitating mental health issues at the time of this offense,” Carpenter wrote. “To keep him in the U.S. Navy longer is simply inappropriate, if not wholly problematic for his continued safety.”
The punishments were lifted and Michael returned to his E-4 rank after drawing the attention of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) on Dec. 2.
Roman Palomares, who is national chairman of the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee of LULAC, said the Washington, D.C.-based organization is taking steps to protect Michael Gregg.
“The actions of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Command and its failure to acknowledge Seaman Michael Gregg’s risk of suicide aboard the ship are unacceptable,” Palomares said. “This is the latest example of leadership lapses by Commanders charged with the care of our sons and daughters entrusted to the U.S. military.”
Congressman Adam Smith said the next steps are to ensure the Navy has an accurate account of Michael’s situation, and receiving care to ensure he can leave the military in good standing.
“I was glad to be alerted to Farrah and Michael Gregg’s case so I could help bring it to the attention of the Navy,” Smith said. “Farrah Gregg did all the right things in advocating for her son and getting him the help he needed.”
Smith said he will continue to work with the Greggs in the future to shed light on the issues concerning mental health in the military.
Michael was officially separated from the US Navy on Dec. 23 with general discharge under honorable conditions. Farrah Gregg says the family is going to fight for a status change to medical disability discharge in the coming months.
The family feels as if they are decompressing from the “nine weeks and three days of 24-7 hell,” Farrah said. Happy tears flow when thinking about how Michael’s life was saved, but turn grim when thinking of how different the outcome could have been.
“I know what happened to me and Michael is still happening to other people in the military,” Farrah said on Dec. 28. “I refused to give up … If you get 20 no’s, don’t stop until you get a ‘yes.’ Never give up — you can’t give up. You have to fight. It’s saving your kid’s life.”
Suicide in the Navy
In 2020, a total of 62 active duty sailors and 12 reserve duty sailors have died by suicide, according to US Navy statistics data updated on Dec. 4.
The Navy recorded 73 active members died by suicide in 2019, the highest number their data tracking shows from 2006.
In April 2019, USNI News reported the Navy was taking several initiatives to combat the rising suicide rates, such as increased access to mental health providers, additional trainings for those in leadership roles, and equipping sailors with skills to deal with the stress of life in the Navy.
“I would be lying to you if I said we had every location covered with mental health resources. We do not,” said Capt. Tara Smith, a subject matter expert assigned to Navy’s Suicide Prevention Branch (OPNAV N171), to USNI News. “We certainly need more mental health resources in the military, and we’re addressing that.”