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.