In the weeks since the Navy’s top enlisted sailor addressed the crew of the troubled aircraft carrier George Washington, Reddit and other online forums have abounded with allegations that Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith told some members to “lower your standards.”
Since Smith’s April 25 all-hands call — which came as GW’s crew was grappling with several suicides and substandard living conditions during a seemingly endless maintenance overhaul — “lower your standards” has become a meme and a rallying cry for those disaffected by Navy life.
But no proof has emerged that Smith actually told sailors to “lower your standards,” and Smith officially denied saying it during a congressional hearing Wednesday.
“Frankly, as you probably are aware, there was quite a bit of social media furor over a non-statement that I didn’t make,” Smith told lawmakers during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
Navy officials later confirmed that Smith was referring to the alleged “lower your standards” statement.
Smith’s comments start at about the 45:50 mark in the video below.
Navy Times obtained a recording of Smith’s all-hands call last month, and the Navy released a transcript of the confab.
Smith never uttered the words “lower your standards” during that event, according to those records. But the allegations have lingered, nonetheless, as Redditors and Facebook pages lambasted Smith’s all-hands call as tone deaf and insensitive.
The GW crew has been living in a ship-turned-construction zone since the refueling and complex overhaul in Newport News, Virginia, began in August 2017. The process is expected to add another 25 years to the carrier’s service life.
Smith’s visit to the carrier came amidst intense public scrutiny of the ship following the suicides of three junior GW sailors last month and several other deaths over the past year.
While Smith officially denied telling anyone to “lower your standards” during the House hearing Wednesday, he said his visit to the GW “did unearth … some real significant frustration with the conditions that sailors are exposed to there and, frankly, in a lot of other places.”
“I had a talk with the crew that was very frank, and I was very complimentary of what they have to do and the conditions they have to endure,” he said. “As a sailor who’s been through several dry dockings, it is the hardest thing, harder than deployment.”
During April’s all-hands call, Smith told the embattled crew that he heard their concerns and that they should raise them, but that they “have to do so with reasonable expectations.”
“What you’re not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing,” he said, adding that much of the crew goes home each night, something that can’t be said for a deployed carrier.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Smith said he “dutifully owns the decisions of our service to prioritize the way they do,” and that sailors need places to escape the pressurized environment of the shipyard.
“There are some challenges that come with the geography of Newport News and parking that just don’t look easily solvable,” he said. “And the pragmatic answer is to be honest with (sailors). To acknowledge and validate how they’re feeling, the frustrations they’re facing, while still telling them that, frankly, if they don’t do what they do … George Washington doesn’t have another 25 years of life to defend this nation.”
The Navy has since launched an investigation into the GW suicides, and a separate probe into quality-of-life shortcomings that sailors experience during extended maintenance periods.
Hundreds of sailors have been offered the chance to move off the ship as GW’s refueling is now expected to last through March 2023, but not all of those sailors have opted to move, Rear Adm. John Meier, Naval Air Force Atlantic’s commander, told reporters May 3.
Smith echoed that sentiment to lawmakers Wednesday.
“Those who were willing to, or wanting to, were moved out,” he said.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.