MILLINGTON, Tenn. (NNS) – In a digital world filled with “internet trolls” and “keyboard warriors,” it can seem hard to make a meaningful difference, but one Navy chief petty officer is striving to be a light in the darkness.
Chief Navy Counselor Grant Khanbalinov has chosen to reach out and be a lifeline for people he has never met. He uses his face, name and position as a Navy chief petty officer to spark the conversation about mental health and to get Sailors the help they need. Why does he do this?
“No matter where you are in the world,” said Khanbalinov, “whether you’re stationed on a ship overseas or in the cubicle down the hall, people need a human connection. It makes a difference.”
Khanbalinov currently works as the national social media trainer at Navy Recruiting Command, where he travels around the country to teach recruiters how to use social media to their advantage. The position was created specifically for him when he was working as a recruiter in Navy Recruiting District (NRD) Philadelphia. At the time, his leadership noticed all the ways he was improving his relationship to the community by embracing all types of social media, and how it was improving his productivity. They decided his ideas, tactics and keen understanding of social media needed to be spread throughout Navy recruiting.
However, his social media savvy was put to the test when he was scanning through Reddit, his favorite website. He spotted a post from a Sailor describing how he was going to commit suicide on his ship after it got underway. Khanbalinov said he knew there was no time to waste, and judging by the wording, this person was going to die if no one stepped in. “My first thought was just ‘we need to find this guy,’ if it’s not too late already,” he said. But this wasn’t a simple task.
Reddit is a site where anyone can post anything, and it’s anonymous, so Khanbalinov had to solve the problem with some creativity. He looked back at all the posts this person had ever made, and deduced the amount of time the Sailor had been in the Navy, their rank and the type of ship they were stationed on. Then Khanbalinov contacted Navy Personnel Command, and based on these and other factors, put together a list of 13 possible ships. He then contacted the Chiefs Mess on each ship, and within five hours of the initial post, the Sailor was located and received the care he needed.
Suicide prevention is something Khanbalinov has taken on as a personal mission because he has first-hand experience with its effects. “When I got back from a deployment in 2012, I started having some mental health issues,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was spiraling until someone on the outside looking in came to me and said ‘you have a problem.’”
He said after this wake-up call he went to get help, and he was able to get better. He wants to show other people it’s okay to seek care. There were no repercussions to his career, and he didn’t have to leave his ship, but he says many Sailors don’t know all the options available to them; they internalize their problems and just try to deal with it themselves.
“I think in the Navy we’re ingrained with this tough mindset that we don’t need help, and it’ll get better,” he said, “but it won’t. Mental health is not like a broken bone or a scab that will heal over time. It only gets worse when it’s left alone; you have to go see a professional.”
He saw this mentality in his own life and in the culture he was raised in. He was born in the former Soviet Union before his family moved to New York. As an immigrant, he says he was raised to be very tough, and to just push through things on his own, but the realization of how necessary getting help can be is something he wants to pass on.
Khanbalinov thinks a large part of the solution to mental health issues is communication. “When I have a junior Sailor working for me, I want them to feel completely comfortable coming to talk to me about anything,” he said. “And the more you talk about suicide the less stigmatized it will be, and Sailors will get help right away.” To help promote this, he’s building a website to become a simple, consolidated source containing information about where to get help, testimonials, and healthy habits to reduce stress if it is becoming too much. The website will expand beyond Sailor-specific use and have information that benefits anyone who visits the page.
In the spirit of open communication, Khanbalinov’s Reddit username, /u/grantmkhan, is his actual name, a rarity on this anonymous platform, and he routinely posts videos of himself speaking in uniform about mental health and suicide, for everyone to see. This is just another way he’s trying to normalize the conversation. “If I go out and make these posts and people attack me or talk bad about chiefs, that’s fine if people don’t like it,” he said, “but if one person reads or watches my posts and goes to get the help they need – it’s well worth it. That’s why I do it.”
On June 3, 2019, Khanbalinov received a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal from Rear Adm. Brendan R. McLane, commander, Navy Recruiting Command, for saving the Sailor with suicidal intentions, and for saving another person who was unresponsive in a grocery store. He used CPR to restart the man’s heart before the police arrived.
While Khanbalinov has been recognized for saving two lives, the number of people his posts have affected may be countless. To him life is precious and helping preserve it is a way of life.
Recently, he reached out to a fellow chief who was struggling with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. He knew there was something wrong and when the Sailor texted Khanbalinov a note with suicidal ideations, he immediately found the chief and took him to the hospital.
“I lost a close friend close to me last year, and I wasn’t going to lose another Sailor to suicide,” said Khanbalinov. “I just responded. I don’t judge or hesitate to take action, because you never know if it is a cry for help or something that person will follow through with.”
The Navy has many resources for Sailors who struggle with mental health, but if someone were to ask Khanbolinov he would gladly tell them that talking to people, whether online or face-to-face is the most effective thing you can do to help someone.
“I don’t think you will find another job in the civilian market that takes their employees’ mental health more serious while providing all the benefits that the Navy has to offer,” said Khanbalinov. “We are all in this together, and I try to remind people the important thing is that ‘you’re not alone.’ We take care of each other and that’s just what I’m doing.”
Khanbalinov mission in life is to improve the lives around him. While his first passion is saving lives, his second is offering a better life to people through naval service. For the last five years as a Navy recruiter, he has dedicated his career to giving people the opportunity to join the Navy.
Khanbalinov joined the Navy in 2008 as an electrician's mate. Though he had no military ties through family or friends, he said he sought out a local recruiter because he wanted to make a difference by serving in the military. Eleven years later, he can rest assured that he is making a difference through every click of the mouse, stroke of the keyboard and his resolve to help anyone he finds in need.
Additionally, If you think a shipmate is having trouble navigating stress, ACT (Ask, Care, Treat):
-- Ask – Ask directly, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
-- Care – Listen without judgment. Show that you care.
-- Treat – Get help immediately and don’t leave the Sailor alone. Escort him or her to the nearest chaplain, trusted leader or medical professional for treatment.
If you, your shipmate, or a loved one are having trouble navigating stress or experiencing a crisis, help is always available. Seeking help is a sign of strength and a sign of the good judgment and reliability needed to thrive in your Navy career. You can reach out to your local Fleet and Family Support Center, Deployed Resilience Counselor, civilian or military mental health provider, or any of the following free and confidential resources:
• MILITARY CRISIS LINE: Connects active duty service members and veterans in crisis with qualified and caring Dept. of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential, toll-free hotline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Support is available via telephone, mobile text or online. Click the link above to be redirected to the Crisis Line website or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255, Option 1).
• MILITARY ONESOURCE: Military OneSource offers free and confidential non-medical counseling via phone and live chat, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They also offer specialty consultations, with services including peer-to-peer support, wounded warrior support, health and wellness coaching, transition assistance and more. Call 800-342-9647 (CONUS).
• NAVY CHAPLAIN CARE Or by phone at 1-855-NAVY311 (1-855-628-9311): Sometimes Sailors and their families would prefer to trust and confide in a Navy Chaplain to receive guidance or help seeing things more clearly. Chaplains are available to talk 24/7. Communications with Navy Chaplains are 100% confidential unless the service member decides otherwise.
• REAL WARRIORS LIVE CHAT: Click the link to start a live chat with a trained health resource consultant, ready to talk, listen and provide the guidance and resources you're looking for.