Eight days ago, someone claiming to be a cryptologic technician posted to the Navy page of the anonymous online forum Reddit.
“Been having suicidal thoughts for awhile,” wrote the sailor, who said they were “just another dumb CT.”
A friend had taken his gun for a bit, the sailor wrote, “a good move on his part.”
But the sailor felt things getting blacker.
“I’ve been putting another round in my revolver every time I’m feeling like ending shit and its almost full,” the CT wrote. “I don’t really know what I want to do, I know I have it good and got an easy life, but fuck, I just want to rest.”
That sailor is not alone in his dark thoughts, and posts about suicide are more common on Navy Reddit than any shipmate would ever want to see.
Like he had with countless other posts about suicide and mental health on Navy Reddit this year, Chief Navy Counselor Gran Khanbalinov left a comment.
“You definitely don’t need to do this!” the khaki known on Reddit as “Chief Khan” replied.
He told the CT how he himself had gone to mental health in 2012 for post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety, and he still had his security clearance and a career.
“8 years later I’m still here!” Chief Khan wrote. “My clearance hasn’t been revoked and I’m in khakis. You can get help and get better.”
Khanbalinov told his shipmate to text him and left his number in the thread.
Connecting with suicidal sailors and veterans on Reddit and helping them get help has become Khanbalinov’s collateral duty in 2019.
It’s one he took upon himself when he posted his first Reddit video in March, in uniform and without telling his command.
Chief Khan let sailors know that it’s OK to seek help for mental health issues and to contact him if they needed to talk.
He told them not to worry about hurting their division, or even the Navy, if they seek help.
Big Navy would keep steaming along, Khanbalinov said in the video, and sailors owe it to themselves to be a bit selfish and get the help they need.
“Talk to your chain of command,” he said in the March video. “If your chain of command isn’t helping you, go outside your chain of command.”
Some commenters scoffed at the video, but it resonated in other corners of Reddit and Chief Khan began posting videos regularly and has since talked to roughly 100 sailors and veterans, encouraging them to seek help or just listening to them.
“Always a great thing to see someone in senior leadership who gives a damn,” one user posted after that first video. “Thank you Chief, you’ve given me hope that the stigma against mental health is changing.”
The chief admits he didn’t know how Big Navy would react to him posting such unauthorized videos to Reddit — in uniform, at that.
But he loved the anonymity of the forum and the “brutal honesty” of its denizens.
“I was going to put my face out there and talk about something a lot of people don’t talk about,” he recalled. “It could be embraced, or I could catch a lot of backlash for it.”
But it was something Khanbalinov said he just had to do. Shipmates were hurting, no matter how the chain of command would react.
“I was always told, if you want to please everyone, sell ice cream,” he said.
Since then, Big Navy has signed off on Khanbalinov’s mission and his innovative way of helping troubled sailors.
Assigned to Navy Recruiting Command headquarters in Millington, Tennessee, Chief Khan is the command’s national social media trainer, a position created for him to exploit his social media savvy.
He spends his working hours traveling the country and teaching recruiters the finer points of social media.
But in his off time, the Russian-born, New York City-raised chief posts his cell phone number, fields calls and goes through messages from Reddit users seeking his help.
Khanbalinov stresses he is not a mental health professional but says that “you can talk to me and I’ll push you in the right direction.”
The chief said he hopes more conversation can lessen the stigma that lingers around mental health.
“The more we talk about it, the more we make sailors feel comfortable with it…the easier it’s going to be for my junior sailor to come up to me and say, ‘Hey chief, this is the problem that I’m having,’ ” he said.
“I shouldn’t be more comfortable on a Friday before all my sailors going on liberty talking about a DUI and not comfortable with talking about mental health,” Khanbalinov added.
Last year, 68 active-duty sailors took their own lives, a grim increase from a decade ago, when 38 sailors killed themselves in 2008, according to Navy data.
Just last week, three sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush all died by suicide.
Chief Khan recalled his first Reddit video getting a big online response.
Reading the comments, he realized he could help air out the issue via Reddit’s anonymity, where sailors could feel safe addressing such things.
Posting videos under the name /u/grantmkhan, Khanbalinov said people struggling with suicidal ideations began messaging him almost daily.
Sailors would talk of depression or concern about reprisal from their chain of command or others having to pick up the slack in their wake, he recalled.
“Sometimes I talk on the phone with them for hours and convince them to go get help. Others, it just took one or two messages and they’re on their way to the chaplain,” Khanbalinov said.
Some shipmates are dealing with work issues, while others struggle with childhood trauma or relationship stressors, he said.
“I’ve heard from chiefs, officers, it’s all over the place,” Khanbalinov said.
“Some don’t want to lose their (security) clearances, some don’t want to get kicked out,” he said.
Khanbalinov tells them that “a very small percentage” will get kicked out over mental health issues, but regardless, their mental well-being is paramount.
“I tell everyone, if that does happen, the Navy is temporary,” Khanbalinov said. “There’s life after the Navy.”
Khanbalinov said he had the same concerns when he started having post-traumatic stress in 2012 after a deployment.
He was having recurring nightmares, grinding his teeth and getting angry easily.
Khanbalinov went to medical, underwent therapy, got past his issues and now has his anchors.
He said he’s heard “some good, some bad” about his efforts from the Chiefs’ Mess, but he hopes the authority in his anchors shows junior sailors that talking about such issues, and seeking help, is OK.
“I’m not doing this to put a star on my anchor,” he said. “I think that’s when they become more receptive to it.”
Khanbalinov said he brushes off the trash talk about him that inevitably surfaces on an anonymous forum like Reddit.
One post from earlier this month asked if Khanbalinov is actually helping anyone or just promoting himself.
“While /u/grantmkhan can be a little…Chiefy? The fact that people are accepting mental illness as an inherent risk in the military lifestyle and not some sort of mysterious evil that makes you lose your job is very important to getting people to ask for help when they need it,” one user wrote.
Another poster wrote that nuclear rating sailors face a high likelihood of losing their job if they seek help, but that airing the issue out helps make it more acceptable for sailors to explore getting help without fear of repercussion.
“As someone who has been stuck in that hole before, I can assure you that this makes a world of difference,” the user wrote.
“I honestly think he has good intentions, while also thinking he is trying to advance his career,” another user wrote. “MCPON might be a goal of his or CMC.”
“I don’t think I can ever stay in that long lol,” Chief Khan replied.
If you, a friend or a loved one is in crisis, please connect with a trained counselor now. Confidential, immediate help is available 24/7 at no cost to active duty, Guard and reserve members, their families and friends. Contact the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, then press 1, or access online chat by texting 838255. Your life matters.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.