Daily Press

Protecting our sailors

The Navy must honor its promises following spike in suicides


After a months-long, comprehens­ive investigat­ion, the U.S. Navy has acknowledg­ed what should have been obvious: Its failures contribute­d to a rash of suicides on an aircraft carrier that spent years at Newport News Shipbuildi­ng. The report, released in mid-May, bluntly states that “years worth of systemic shortcomin­gs” led to sailors, mostly young and low ranking, living in difficult and depressing conditions without adequate support or care.

It describes a climate in which leaders focused on getting the USS George Washington through its mid-life overhaul as quickly and efficientl­y as possible but gave little considerat­ion to the human needs of its crew, who were struggling with some of the toughest living conditions in today’s military. Schedules and budgets were more important than people.

When the overhaul dragged on for nearly six years rather than the usual four, those in charge failed to make needed adjustment­s.

Since the summer of 2017, the George Washington underwent major maintenanc­e scheduled at the halfway point of its expected 50-year service. It finally left the shipyard in May, after nearly six years. The COVID pandemic was a major factor in the delays, although not the only one.

During that time, at least nine sailors assigned to the George Washington committed suicide. There have also been suicides on other carriers, and studies show that more than half of those deaths involved sailors on ships undergoing maintenanc­e.

As Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, and Carlos Del Toro, secretary of the Navy, wrote, there was an “organizati­onal drift” on the George Washington in which “conditions that were clearly not right became acceptable.”

It’s heartening to see the Navy take responsibi­lity, even if belatedly.

It took the suicide deaths of three of the ship’s sailors within a week in 2022 for the Navy to take a hard look at the problem. An initial, more cursory investigat­ion said “life stressors” contribute­d to the three suicides but that the deaths were otherwise not connected.

The exhaustive report just released admits, in effect, that those “life stressors” and suicides were clearly linked to the sailors’ “unsuitable” living conditions.

When a ship is in the shipyard, junior sailors have no housing allowance to pay for a place to live. Most of the George Washington’s junior sailors lived on the ship or a nearby barge. That can be grim. It’s crowded and noisy, and power outages, no hot water and lack of heating and cooling are common.

Sailors were cut off from the base gyms and activities that promote mental and physical health. There was a 32-day wait time before a sailor could begin to see the ship’s psychologi­st. Many sailors were afraid to ask to see a psychologi­st or chaplain, because they believed their superiors cared only about getting the work done.

Many of these sailors were still teenagers or in their early 20s, and the vision of Navy life that led them to enlist was a far cry from the reality of being stuck in the yards for years. Substance abuse was widespread. Even crew members who lived off base had major headaches, including woefully inadequate parking facilities that added time and stress to already difficult commutes.

The report offers 48 detailed recommenda­tions, including expanded housing opportunit­ies and housing allowances for junior sailors during maintenanc­e periods. It recommends limiting new sailors’ time on dry-docked carriers to two years. It calls for easier access to mental health care and chaplains, and more attention to providing “suitable” rather than just “habitable” living conditions.

Carrying out many of these recommenda­tions will take money, of course. Congress should make those funds a priority at budget time.

The Navy’s leaders should guard against becoming so overwhelme­d by deadlines and hardware that they neglect the well-being of the volunteers under their command.

They shouldn’t “drift” into letting bad practices and situations become standard operating procedure — at the risk of the tragic and unnecessar­y deaths of young sailors who wanted to serve our country.

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