Sailor's Suicide Leads Annapolis Mom To Fight Military Sexual Assault
Editor’s Note: This story covers sexual assault in the military and the suicide of an Annapolis native on active duty. His mother, Betty Buck, asked Patch to share her son's story as she holds a fundraiser Saturday to promote awareness of sexual abuse in the service. The subject matter could be upsetting to some readers.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, there are resources to help. The National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988.
ANNAPOLIS, MD — Betty Buck was on the phone with her son when he took his own life. The Eastport mother heard a gunshot end a five-hour conversation where her son, Danny Buck, revealed he was sexually assaulted in the Navy and couldn’t recover.
Danny’s story isn’t unique. Thousands of service members are sexually assaulted annually, and hundreds take their lives each year.
Betty is determined to reverse that trend. She started the HM2 Buck for Hope Foundation in Danny’s honor to shine a light on military sexual assault and end veteran suicide.
“Regardless of how I feel personally, you have to talk about it,” Betty said. “That’s what Danny asked me to do.”
The foundation is hosting a gala this Saturday at 6:30 p.m. The event will feature cocktails, dinner and a Neil Diamond impersonator at Annapolis’ Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. Tickets are still available for $200 at this link.
Last Moments Together
Danny asked his mom to FaceTime her on April 29, 2019, and said it was urgent. Betty, heading home from a doctor’s appointment, pulled over just before the Riva Road bridge and called her son.
Danny said it was “D Day,” or death day. The 39-year-old told his mother that three fellow sailors sexually assaulted him months prior while they were on a ship in Japan. Betty said the abusers also assaulted two other victims before attacking Danny and still haven’t been held accountable.
Danny told his mom that he lost all his dignity and humanity.
“That’s what struck home for me. That broke my heart,” Betty told Patch. “He said ‘Mom, you can’t get me my dignity and humanity back. It’s gone.’”
Realizing the gravity of the situation, Betty patched her daughters into the call. She also contacted Danny's best Navy friends and told them to go to his apartment immediately and try to talk to him. They then called the local police department, which sent a crisis intervention team.
Danny refused to open the door, but the conversation continued. He reminisced on a mother-son vacation around Europe and family road trips across America.
Betty reflected on Danny’s days playing ice hockey and snow skiing in Maine. She smiled at his proper style with Izod collared shirts and khaki pants. And she remembered his happy personality and protective spirit as a big brother with three younger siblings.
“I don’t know of anybody else that has been that blessed to have five hours,” Betty said of her last call with Danny.
Betty told Danny they could get him help to cope with the attack, but he said nothing could change his mind.
He had already scheduled out holiday deliveries of flowers for his wife and birthday presents for his then 3-year-old daughter.
Danny also intentionally shot himself in a spot that let his family have an open casket at his funeral service. His father had an open casket after he hanged himself years prior, making for a graphic viewing that wasn’t suitable for kids. Danny didn’t want his daughter to experience the same pain he had.
“Although he didn’t get to see his father, he wanted [his daughter] to see him,” Betty said. “Danny, to the bitter end, was thinking of someone else.”
Before his last breath, Danny asked his mother to fight sexual assault in the military. He told her she’s a force of nature and nothing can stop her.
The call ended tragically.
A chaplain and a casualty officer from the U.S. Naval Academy were at Betty’s door within an hour. The Navy flew her out to San Diego, where Danny chose to transfer after he was assaulted, for the funeral.
Betty said the Navy told her not to share that Danny died by suicide. She refused to be silenced, however.
“Danny had to be silent. I don’t,” Betty said.
Betty got to work. She sold her 74-year-old, family-run beer distribution business in June 2020. She then started the HM2 Buck for Hope Foundation, which takes its name from Danny’s role as a hospital corpsman or HM2.
Sexual Assault, Mental Health Issues
The first problem Betty uncovered is that commanding officers handled sexual assault allegations. That posed a potential conflict of interest when a supervisor doesn’t want to look bad as sexual misconduct happens in their unit.
Betty also learned that Danny only had one psychiatric visit. He then had two choices. He could stay at the post where he was assaulted or transfer back to his original duty station. Danny chose the latter and returned to California.
Sexual assaults are common in the military.
The Department of Defense tallied 8,942 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims or suspects in fiscal year 2022. That’s up by about 1 percent from the year prior.
Commanders issued discipline in 2,117 cases, about two-thirds of the reports where supervisors had authority and jurisdiction to consider taking action. Another 1,031 cases did not lead to discipline because of insufficient evidence or honoring the victim’s request not to pursue action. About 1 percent of the cases were false or baseless, the Pentagon said.
The Navy is not immune to these problems, counting 1,988 sexual assault reports in fiscal year 2022. That’s a 5.6 percent increase from the year before.
Department of Defense spokesperson Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman said sexual assaults in the military reflect a societal problem.
“The military is made up of a cross section of our society and unfortunately, sexual violence is a crime that plagues our nation,” Schwegman said. “That said, we are taking action to ensure everyone serves in a climate of dignity, respect, and inclusion.”
Military suicide is also a persistent problem.
Calendar year 2022 saw 488 service member suicides, including 77 in the Navy. Last year’s overall suicide count is still preliminary, so it’s too soon to say if military suicides increased or decreased last year.
There were 523 military suicides in 2021, 581 in 2020 and 504 in 2019.
“Every life lost to suicide is one too many,” Navy spokesperson Lt.j.g. Erin McCullagh said. “We are committed to suicide prevention and the thriving mental health and wellbeing of our Sailors.”
Addressing Sexual Assaults
The Pentagon has been working to reverse these trends, and Betty applauded the work of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
The Department of Defense said it has invested nearly $1 billion to implement these recommendations since September 2021.
One of those recommendations was to remove sexual assault investigations from the military chain of command. This takes commanders, who could be biased to protect their unit’s reputation, out of the disciplinary process.
Each branch will instead have a special trial counsel, an independent reviewer that will start prosecuting cases this December.
When reporting a sexual assault, service members can file a restricted or unrestricted report. Restricted reports are confidential and don’t pursue discipline against the suspect. Unrestricted reports, on the other hand, trigger an investigation. Both reporting options send resources to the victim.
The Department of Defense launched the Catch a Serial Offender program to improve victim support. This initiative lets victims who initially chose restricted reports confidentially enter information about the suspect into a database. If there’s ever a match with a repeat abuser, the military will contact the victim and ask if they want to switch to an unrestricted report and pursue discipline against the suspect.
The Pentagon said it’s hiring more than 2,000 full-time sexual assault prevention employees to focus on high-risk locations and establish policies. It also plans to give sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates “greater independence from command.”
The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response page has more details for victims.
“Making the significant changes directed by the Secretary of Defense takes time,” Schwegman said. “However, we are committed to staying fully focused on this issue. We are making unprecedented resource investments to bring about lasting cultural changes that prevent harmful behaviors, including sexual assault.”
Improving Mental Health
As for reducing suicides, a Department of Defense commission finished a review this January. The group generated 117 recommendations for how the Pentagon can improve service members’ mental health.
Recommendations included everything from reducing station reassignments, ensuring there’s time for 8 hours of sleep between shifts, addressing delays in employee payments and reforming the standards required to earn promotions.
The commission also suggested revamping suicide prevention trainings, adding wait periods for firearm and ammunition purchases on Department of Defense property and raising the minimum age to purchase guns and ammunition on military bases to 25 years old.
The Pentagon is currently working on implementing recommendations from this report.
“Lloyd Austin is truly committed,” Betty said of the secretary of defense. “He wants to make a difference.”
President Joe Biden signed the Brandon Act into law in 2021. Named after Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, who died by suicide in 2018, the Brandon Act will improve access to mental health care in the military. The Pentagon started implementing the policy this May.
Service members can now request a mental health evaluation at any time by asking their ranking officer. The supervisor will then refer them to a mental health provider for a visit as soon as possible. More information is posted at health.mil/brandonact.
The Pentagon is evaluating bases on their ability to prevent and address suicide risk. It’s also hiring a suicide prevention workforce. This comes on the heels of “Connect to Protect: Support is Within Reach,” a year-long communication campaign on self-care, social connectedness and support resources.
Additional mental health tools are available through the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.
“The Department takes a public health and integrated primary prevention approach to suicide prevention which focuses on reducing suicide risk for all Service members and their families by targeting the various underlying risk factors, such as relationship, financial, and mental health challenges,” Schwegman said. “We are also committed to enhancing protective factors, such as social connections, coping skills, and safety in one’s environment.”
Along with chaplains on military bases, other resources include:
- The 24/7 Psychological Health Resource Center
- Counseling through Military OneSource
- The 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line at 988 press 1
- The inTransition program to help service members going through duty changes
- The Sailor Assistance and Intercept for Life initiative for seamen with suicidal thoughts
“Seeking help is a sign of strength and there are many support services available,” McCullagh said.
How Mom Is Helping
Betty is raising awareness for these problems. She wants to bring all of Maryland’s military bases together to discuss how to better prevent sexual assaults.
More immediately, Betty is fundraising for her outreach campaigns.
Betty will use the money to educate veterans on the importance of speaking up. Danny couldn’t share his scars, but she doesn’t want anybody else to suffer in silence.
“He couldn’t tell you, and that’s part of this whole silence issue,” Betty said. “You have to be able to get help.”
To learn more about the foundation, visit hm2buckforhope.com.
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