To Save Sailors: A bond with purpose between admiral, Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group

Navy Rear Adm. Jesse Wilson, commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic, listens during a meeting of the Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group on Wednesday, Feb. 20, in Portsmouth. Wilson has twice joined the support group to better understand what survivors of suicide experience and build relationships. He is using knowledge and connections with people such as Chris Gilchrist, a licensed clinical social worker who founded the group, to help sailors and civilians under his command address mental health issues. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

PORTSMOUTH — The admiral, in civilian attire, entered a room within St. Andrew Lutheran Church on Wednesday, Feb. 20. He walked toward a circle of blue folding chairs. Members of the Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group, which for three decades has offered a place to talk about a disease that does not discriminate between military and civilian, greeted their guest.

Denny and Nikki Chalk of Maple, N.C., were among the first to say hello to Navy Rear Adm. Jesse A. Wilson Jr., Commander, U.S. Naval Surface Force Atlantic.

“Good to see you,” Wilson said. 

“Good to see you, sir,” Denny Chalk said.

The Chalks lost their son, Tighe, in 2016 when he died by suicide. For Denny Chalk, being part of the group has helped him understand suicide results from illness and that society should see it this way, too. He and his family founded an event in Currituck County that focuses on young people and raising awareness about suicide and mental health issues such as untreated depression. 

And they’ve been active with Survivors of Suicide Support Group and the annual event it sponsors, the Hampton Roads Morning of Hope, Help and Healing — a ceremony and walk at Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach.

This was not Wilson’s first visit with the group. He attended a meeting last year after Chris Gilchrist, the licensed clinical social worker who leads the group and coordinates the Morning of Hope, asked him to speak at the annual gathering at Mount Trashmore, the next of which will be on Saturday, Sept. 7.

In Portsmouth, Denny Chalk told Wilson that it was a real leader who would try to understand what survivors know. 

“I think everybody who is sitting in this circle is a leader,” Wilson said.

Gilchrist joined the group after speaking privately with a young man attending his first meeting. A dozen people, including the young man and Wilson, sat in the circle of chairs. A cake rested on a nearby table. The support group celebrated 31 years that evening.

Gilchrist spoke about the wound of loss, how it bleeds as people grieve, but also how it can heal. “But it leaves a scar.”

She introduced their special guest.

“Raise your hand if you know Jesse.”

Hands went up. Wilson shook one that hadn’t. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“Outside of this room, you might know him as Admiral Jesse Wilson,” Gilchrist said. “I think your coming says a lot about how you care for your sailors.”

She talked about mental health.

“Depression is a disease,” she said. “It’s a treatable disease.”

People introduced themselves around the circle. They gave their name, who they lost, the date of the loss, how their loved one took their own life.

Nikki and Denny Chalk are seen during the Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group on Wednesday, Feb. 20, in Portsmouth. The Chalks lost their son to suicide in 2016. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
“We lost our son, Tighe,” Nikki Chalk said. “He was 18. On March 25, 2016. To a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

Denny Chalk introduced himself, adding that the day they lost Tighe was Good Friday.

Soon it was Wilson’s turn.

“Hi, I’m Jesse Wilson.” He said he hasn’t lost any family members to suicide. “I have lost shipmates, peers and subordinates to the treatable disease of suicide.”

He came to the meeting at the special invitation of the members. He was there to learn and listen. “I thank you for welcoming me to your group.”

The young man attending his first meeting spoke soon after. He is a sailor. He lost a loved one recently. It’s been hard, he said.

The young man said it has been hard sleeping and that he had just returned to work. He said he wants to talk to his loved one still.

So talk to them, Denny Chalk advised.

“There’s no right or wrong way to grieve,” Gilchrist said, adding that there are questions after such a loss. They should be asked.

“These questions are not only natural or normal,” she said, “they’re necessary.”

At the end of the meeting, Denny Chalk lit a candle that people passed around the circle. They held it silently, spoke, reflected.

“The people in this room help me – help us – get through,” Chalk said. “This is the one time a month I feel normal.”

The candle went from person to person. Then they shared cake. At the edge of the circle, Wilson spoke with the young sailor.

Wilson speaks to thousands of people during the Hampton Roads Morning of Hope, Help and Healing on Saturday, Sept. 8, at Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Two days later, Wilson, now in uniform, spoke in his office on Naval Station Norfolk about why he has been included by the group in two meetings and, this past September, addressed people at Mount Trashmore during the Morning of Hope. There, Wilson had been among leaders of branches of the armed forces who participated in the event, which Gilchrist has said stresses its strong connections to the military because that community is part of the fabric of this region.

That morning in September, Wilson told a crowd of people he was thankful the event “brings a community together to promote strong mental health by raising awareness to the treatable disease of depression and the preventable tragedy of suicide.”

Two years earlier, while Wilson commanded Carrier Strike Group 10 operating at sea from USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the ship held an event on its flight deck that coincided with the Out of the Darkness Community Walk in Virginia Beach. Gilchrist had organized that event for years before founding the Morning of Hope in 2017. 

Both aboard Eisenhower and during last year’s event at Mount Trashmore, Wilson was struck by the number of people around him who were affected by suicide.

In his office, he said the first meeting with the support group was to gain an understanding of what survivors experience before he addressed the Morning of Hope. And he wanted to help his people, too – service members and civilians alike.

“It’s about our people,” he said. “My job here as the commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic is all about readiness. And so our motto is ‘Ready Ships, Ready Sailors, Ready Civilians.’  So two thirds of that motto is about people.”

Though his family has not faced these issues, his Navy family has.

“As a senior officer who has served in the Navy for coming up on 33 years now, there have been times when shipmates, comrades in arms, if you will, have succumbed to the tragedy of suicide,” Wilson said. “And these are people who I’ve served with. They’re people who, side by side, are going through the same stressors that we all go through. And I’ve seen the reality of being close to someone, a shipmate, and not realizing how much they were hurting. And then, in the end, questioning yourself as to why you didn’t see this coming.”

Dealing with guilt and a lack of closure is something he has learned about during the Survivors of Suicide support group meetings.

“Chris had to get permission from the members of that group for me to even show up, and I told them then that I would come back, that it wasn’t a one time thing,” Wilson said.  “And this is not something that you check a block, and you go to one meeting and now you understand everything. …

“I learned more the second time. There were new people there the second time, but also there’s this aspect, too: I got a sense that some of the members — and they’ve said this — it’s important to see leaders show up at venues like this because it gives them an indication that leaders are taking care of their people … ” And their lessons can help him save others, he added.

Rear Adm. Jesse A. Wilson Jr., right, commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic, speaks with leaders aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG 64), in this 2018 Navy image. [Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Wolpert/U.S. Navy]
Wilson said the command has taken steps to better care for its people. Years ago, a predecessor started an initiative on toughness in coordination with researchers to give commands and individual sailors more tools to be resilient and develop coping skills. “We all go through challenges,” Wilson said. “It’s not if. It’s when.”

There is a Force Preservation Council including medical, mental health and faith leaders, as well as senior officers associated with providing services and overseeing programs that offer help to servicepeople.

“Our focus, number one, is to remove the stigma and to send a message that coming forward with the fact that you’re feeling depressed, that you feel like you’re getting to the point where you might do some harm to yourself, that actually is a sign of strength and it’s a sign of toughness,” he said.

This past year, the command moved mental health resources closer to the waterfront, an idea the admiral discussed in terms of a “golden hour” for getting lifesaving care to someone with a traumatic battlefield injury.

“If I can get to you within that golden hour, I increase the likelihood that you’re gong to be saved. This mental health issue is no different.”

As for the young man, one of the new faces the admiral met in February during the meeting in Portsmouth, Wilson will check in, likely via Gilchrist. He recalled his conversation with his shipmate near the edge of a circle of chairs.

“Don’t hesitate to reach out,” Wilson told the sailor.

Wilson, who visited the support group for the second time this past month, holds a candle toward the end of the meeting. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

Visit for more information about the Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group or reach Gilchrist via (757) 483-5111. Gilchrist, a licensed clinical social worker, founded the support group three decades ago, and it meets from 7 to 9 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Portsmouth. There is no cost.


People who need help or know someone who does can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides free and confidential support, at (800) 273-8255. Additional resources are available online via suicidepreventionlifeline.orgMembers of the armed forces and veterans who need help can call the Military/Veterans Crisis Center at (800) 273-8255, press 1, or find information and help online via Veterans do not need to be registered with the U.S. Veterans Administration to get help.


The Navy saw a rise in suicides by active duty sailors over the past two years that outpaced a rise in suicides among active duty personnel in the military overall, according to a report in December by Ben Werner, writing for U.S. Naval Institute News. In January, Military Times reported the military in 2018 saw its highest number of suicides among those on active duty since 2012. “A total of 321 active-duty members took their lives during the year, including 57 Marines, 68 sailors, 58 airmen and 138 soldiers,” Patricia Kime wrote in Military Times. “The deaths equal the total number of active-duty personnel who died by suicide in 2012, the record since the services began closely tracking the issue in 2001.”


The Independent News agreed to some constraints during the support group meeting because of the nature of the gathering. Members who are photographed or named agreed to be shown or named. The story quotes but does not name one person who had a recent loss and is serving in the military. The decision not to name this person was made by The Independent News alone. The reporter was present for the interactions described in the story.

© 2019 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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