NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Congresswoman Elaine Luria sent a letter demanding answers about the conditions onboard the USS George Washington after three Sailors died by suicide. In the letter, she stated that this many deaths under a single command are concerning.
The News 3 Investigative team is learning more about the questions Sailors have after reviewing the transcript from a recent "All-Hands" meeting that gave Sailors the opportunity to ask questions.
They asked about the impacts of COVID-19, mental health resources and bonus pay, among other issues.
Local Navy officials say there have been seven deaths reported in the last year along with the three recent suicides, which have people very concerned.
“I am continuing to keep these sailors, their families and the crew of USS George Washington in my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time,” Rep. Luria said. “Each death is a tragedy, and the number of incidents under a single command raises significant concern that requires immediate and stringent inquiry to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the ship’s crew. I am calling on the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy and CNO Gilday to provide the House Armed Services Committee and Members of Congress with a full accounting of what steps are being taken to address command climate, safety concerns, mental health and other issues that may have contributed to this tragic loss of life on USS George Washington. Every member of our armed forces must be treated with respect, and we have an obligation to ensure that our active-duty personnel on USS George Washington and around the world are being heard and supported while serving our country.”
Luria said the USS George Washington is undergoing multi-year refueling and maintenance at Newport News Shipbuilding.
Sailors got to voice their concerns to a top leader, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith, several days ago, and the Navy made the transcript of the meeting available Monday night.
“For the Master Chief of the Navy to hear those concerns of the enlisted men and the officers on board a ship or on the aircraft carrier or in general, it’s a really big deal. That shows the Navy is taking it seriously,” said Don Mann, a former Navy SEAL, author and motivational speaker.
The transcript reveals Smith was asked if the COVID restrictions enforced by the military were too strict - possibly leading to suicides.
He said they were needed because of close quarters and keeping people safe.
Mann says tight quarters and COVID restrictions, along with international conflicts, are adding pressure. He said there is worry about what may happen next and the military will be on the front lines.
He said people that aren’t in the military may believe that working on a ship is fun and exciting, but he said it is extremely difficult work and long hours.
Smith told the group of Sailors that overall suicides are down in the Navy but says there’s still a problem. He said they’ve hired more healthcare workers but still need more, saying they’re putting chaplains on destroyers and smaller ships for the first time.
One Sailor asked: Why chaplains instead of psychiatrists? Smith said psychiatrists are harder to find.
“There aren’t that many psychologists or psychiatrists in the Navy. You don’t have a supply of them to spread around on all the destroyers and all of the aircraft carriers,” said Mann.
Other Sailors expressed a lack of things to do in Newport News.
Mann said there are certain places where you go in the Navy that are not desirable, with a lack of things to do and see.
“You just want to be off the ship, but when you get off the ship, there’s not anything there that entices you to want to be off the ship, either. It could be a depressive cycle,” said Mann.
Smith encouraged Sailors to reach out to each other if someone seems to be struggling.
“The stress level on everybody is more than normal, and I think it’s really important now than ever to keep a close eye on your friends and your coworkers and your children if they’re in the military,” said Mann.
We requested the audio reversion of this transcript from the Navy and were told that since it is low quality, they did not think it would be of use. We requested it again but haven’t heard back yet.