If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you can confidentially seek assistance via the Military/Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, via text at 838255 or chat at http://VeteransCrisisLine.net.
Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier George Washington, which has suffered three crew suicides in the last month, are stressed from the extended maintenance period and parking issues, among other things, according to Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia.
The Navy should evaluate these issues not only for the George Washington, but other ships expected to undergo refueling complex overhauls in the future, Luria, a Democrat and former naval officer, told reporters Tuesday.
“I think there’s a lot of stress on the crew, because the availability has run long and been extended again,” said Luria, who visited the aircraft carrier on Tuesday to speak with sailors and Navy leadership aboard the ship.
The George Washington, which has been in a refueling and complex overhaul since August 2017 at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, was expected to conclude its maintenance period last year. But it was extended and now is slated to complete the maintenance period in March 2023.
Naval Air Force Atlantic, the parent command of the George Washington, announced Tuesday it was kicking off two investigations following the suicides: one examining triggers associated with the suicides, and another evaluating “systemic stressors to working in the shipyard environment,” reserve deputy commander for Naval Air Force Atlantic Rear Adm. Bradley Dunham told reporters.
Common stressors sailors cited included isolation, not only from the 45 minute walk from the parking lot to the ship, but also from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Luria. Likewise, she noted that a common theme is that sailors were assigned to the carrier as their first tour, and that the challenging conditions were these sailors’ first taste of the Navy.
All these issues present questions like how long tours for junior sailors should be, and what is the right balance of manning on ships undergoing extended maintenance availabilities, Luria said.
Additionally, Luria sent a letter to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday on April 26 requesting information on how the Navy is assessing the climate of the ship, and any immediate or interim changes stemming from the investigations. Gilday has not provided a written response to her letter as of May 3, according to Luria’s communications director, Jayce Genco.
“I did get the impression that the ship was making a concerted effort to leverage the resources available to them to help sailors not feel that isolation as much, especially coming out of COVID,” Luria said.
But the Navy could resolve some of these issues once and for all, Luria added. For example, expanding parking could trim hours off the commute of sailors who do not live on the ship.
The cost of buses transporting sailors from the shipyard to the remote parking lot over the maintenance availability period is roughly $15 million, Luria said. But that figure could also go toward creating a new parking garage a block from the gate. Rather than accept that things have always been done a certain way, Luria said the Navy should invest in resources to solve problems long-term.
“I think that we need to look at the situation that we have on the GW now, but also look at it for the long-term for the ships that will be, you know, [CVN] 74, and then ships in the future that will be undergoing [refueling complex overhauls] at Newport News Shipbuilding,” Luria said.
The aircraft carrier John Stennis, or CVN 74, arrived at Newport News Shipbuilding in May 2021 to start an approximately four-year refueling complex overhaul maintenance period.
Despite the challenges, Luria said she did not identify anything especially problematic regarding command climate based on her visit to the George Washington.
“The sailors are going through a really tough time because of these losses, especially sailors who had a personal connection to those who were lost recently,” Luria said. “I think, as far as command climate is concerned, I have concerns about some things on the ship, but I didn’t see any large red flags.”