NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Rep. Elaine Luria (D-2nd Congressional District) toured the USS George Washington Tuesday afternoon and heard directly from Sailors regarding their concerns after three of their crewmates assigned to the ship were found dead within a week last week.
“Every member of the ship is like a family member,” Luria said. “It's hit the crew hard.”
“I think it's very important to take a deep look and a broad look into the contributing factors behind these types of incidents,” Luria added.
It was confirmed that the three Sailors died by suicide. Local Navy officials say there have been seven deaths reported in the last year, along with these three recent deaths.
After the news, the congresswoman sent a sent a letter to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday demanding answers about the conditions onboard the aircraft carrier. In the letter, she stated that this many deaths under a single command are concerning.
Navy officials told News 3 that in the last two years, nine Sailors assigned to the George Washington have died. Six of those were suicides, including the three reported in April.
“Anytime we lose a Sailor, it's gut-wrenching,” Rear Admiral John Meier, Commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said.
Adm. Meier said immediate action has been taken, with two investigations underway.
One involves a direct look into the three suicides from last month.
The other involves a broader look at command climate and culture, and what Meier calls “systemic stressors” to working in a shipyard environment.
“Among those are the way we distribute our Sailors, laws and policies, parking issues associated with working here [Newport News Shipbuilding],” Meier said.
Meier added there are also more training and mental health professionals added to the ship.
Hundreds of Sailors have also been offered options to move off the ship to Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
“I think it's important to note that we found spaces for them. This will be at no cost for the Sailors,” Meier said. “It will increase their commuting time, certainly, but it will also improve the quality of life for them.”
“We're continuing to look for better ways to improve quality of life on the ship, including cellphone repeaters, Wi-Fi access on the mess decks,” Meier added.
“You have the stress of being a new Sailor in the Navy; this is the only thing you know; you have these difficult working and living conditions, and on top of that, what are the other stressors that people have in their lives and being able to remove those friction points for Sailors,” Luria said.
Within the meeting, Sailors voiced their concerns to Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith.
When asked by Sailors why chaplains are being put on certain ships instead of psychiatrists, Smith said psychiatrists are harder to find.
News 3 asked Luria and Meier if these trends with psychiatrists and psychologists within the Navy is something that they’re looking into.
“It's definitely something I am looking at and asked about today [Tuesday],” Luria said. “I think we do need to look at the manning and understand if, on the medical professional side, what's being provided to a carrier is enough for the size of the crew and their needs.”
“There are a lot of resources, right now, laser focused on the George Washington,” Meier said. “Mental health help and capacity across the nation, but across the DoD [Department of Defense] and Navy, is not meeting demand and I think that we all recognize that this is a national imperative.”
In response to an ABC News report that hundreds of the USS George Washington's Sailors would be allowed to move off the ship after outcry aboard the carrier, Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic (CNAL) provided News 3 with the following statement:
“The Commanding Officer of USS George Washington has taken steps to provide an opportunity to every Sailor who is currently living on the ship to elect to move to off-ship accommodations at a local installation. The move began today and will continue until all Sailors who wish to move off-ship have done so.”
CNAL says a certain number of Sailors are required to remain on the ship to run essential equipment, provide essential services and provide for ship security; only a limited number of Sailors live on the ship full-time.
Additionally, CNAL told us it has "directed the command to identify Sailors who could benefit from and desire the support services and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs more readily available on our local installations, and are in the process of making temporary accommodations available to them. Leadership is actively implementing these and pursing a number of additional morale and personal well-being measures and support services to members assigned to USS George Washington (CVN-73).”
It says it is providing Sailors with an option for temporary accommodations at local installations, and all Sailors, regardless of paygrade, who live onboard the ship will be given this option. The USS George Washington has also scheduled additional buses to provide transportation from the ship to the temporary accommodations.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and need help, below are some resources:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
- Crisis Textline: Text ASKUS to 741741