By the time of his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound last December, the grueling workload of the aircraft carrier George Washington had taken its toll on Machinist’s Mate Fireman Conner Owens, according to those who loved him.
The 22-year-old reported working a long and shifting schedule, his parents told Navy Times, as the carrier continued year four of its refueling and complex overhaul stint at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia.
Near the end of his life, Owens “was definitely not great, mentally,” his mother, Joanna Black said. “Never to where I thought I should go down and check on him … but I know he was very unhappy with work.”
“It seemed like they didn’t care about them that much,” said Owens’ fiancé, who met Owens when they worked at Wawa. She requested anonymity because she works for the Defense Department. “It was the mission comes first before the people, and it should be the complete opposite.”
The junior sailor’s father, Joe Owens, told Navy Times, “I don’t agree with having these kids basically be legalized slaves on the ship. I do understand what they are trying to do, but the hours were ridiculous.”
Virginia’s medical examiner’s office ruled Owens’ Dec. 11 death a suicide, at least the fourth suicide among seven GW deaths the Navy says have occurred at the command from April 2021 to April 2022.
But after a Navy casualty assistance officer told Owens’ parents that he had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Newport News police told them that the circumstances around the young man’s death were not so simple.
The junior sailor’s loved ones still aren’t entirely clear on how Owens came to end his life, whether investigators believe it was an intentional act or whether another man at the scene when Owens died had a role in the fatal chronology.
Today, more than five months after his passing, Owens’ parents are still waiting for a full accounting from civilian and military investigators.
“The Navy and police have given me nothing,” Joe Owens said. “At this point I kind of feel like everything is getting brushed under the rug.”
“I don’t know what happened,” he added.
The conditions for sailors working and living aboard GW during peacetime shipyard maintenance have come under public scrutiny following the suicides of three GW sailors over six days last month.
“He’s not just a number to me,” Black said. “He just went above and beyond for everybody, and the Navy.”
The Navy has since moved hundreds of sailors off the ship — a militarized construction zone with limited working bathrooms and other basic needs — but the environment aboard the GW is the latest in a string of publicized institutional Navy shortcomings that raise questions about how well the sea service is looking after its most-vulnerable and lowest-ranking sailors.
“I just don’t think it’s fair that this kind of thing just goes unseen and unheard of,” Owens’ fiancé said. “Why does it take three suicides in one week for this stuff to become public?”
In February, Navy Times broke the news of how junior sailors at the Maryland Navy base that houses Walter Reed National Military Medical Center had gone without hot water, air conditioning and working door locks in their barracks buildings, a problem that the Navy jumped on less than a day after the Navy Times report.
Earlier this month, Military.com reported how junior sailors stationed in Key West, Florida, were being kicked out of aging barracks with little to no other options for affordable housing.
As news of broader problems aboard GW emerged, Owens’ parents spoke with Navy Times to share their story and concern for Owens’ shipmates.
There have been mistakes on their son’s death certificate, simple things like his race, which have led his grieving parents to have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to correct the record.
Owens’ immediate family isn’t military, and Black said navigating the bureaucracy has been difficult, even with a casualty assistance officer on call to help.
“I feel very lost in everything,” she said. “I can’t get past just wanting answers.”
‘Always looking out for the underdog’
The Navy declined to comment on the specifics of Owens’ passing, citing an ongoing Newport News police investigation in which the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is assisting.
After several queries seeking basic details regarding when and where Owens died, Newport News police spokesman Kelly King provided a brief statement last week.
Officers were called to the 700 block of Adams Drive in reference to a shooting just before 2 a.m. on Dec. 11.
“Upon arrival they located a male victim suffering from a gunshot wound who was pronounced deceased at the scene,” King said. “The investigation remains ongoing, and we have no further information to release at this time.”
Joe Owens said different authorities have told them different things about Owens’ death.
Navy officials initially said Owens was “in a vehicle traveling” when “he pulled out a gun and shot himself,” according to Joe Owens.
His mother also recalled how the Navy casualty assistance officer told them Owens had died by suicide from a gunshot wound to the head.
But after traveling from north of Philadelphia to Virginia, Owens’ parents soon realized the narrative wasn’t so cut-and-dry.
According to Owens’ dad, Newport News police said his son was sitting with his roommate in his roommate’s car outside the apartment they shared, and that Owens died via his roommate’s gun.
The detective told Joanna Black that there may have been “horseplay” before Owens died.
In addition, a Newport News detective later said Owens might have been drunkenly playing with a gun, according to Joe Owens.
Owens and his father were firearm owners, but detectives told his mom that the gun that killed Owens was not registered to him or his father.
“Apparently something went weird that night,” Black said. “I want answers, just in general, about that evening, what transpired, why that investigation is taking so long.”
Owens was a stressed-out and overworked young man, his parents said, but they question whether he was at the point of wanting to end his life.
Joe Owens said he was texting with his son earlier that day.
Owens told his dad they were having a birthday party for a friend, and Joe Owens didn’t get the sense that anything was wrong.
“Conner had a bunch of guns himself that were in that apartment,” his father said. “Why would he shoot himself in his roommate’s car with his roommate’s gun?”
GW was Owens’ first assignment out of training, and “they basically had him doing everything,” Joe Owens said.
“That’s not why he joined the Navy,” he said. “He joined to see the world.”
Owens rented a place in town with his roommate and wasn’t one of the sailors forced to live aboard the ship, but Joe Owens said his schedule was constantly in flux between working days and nights.
“It was very hard to sync a schedule to where we could see him,” Joe Owens said.
Newport News police have periodically reached out, he said, but they have also warned the investigation could take up to a year.
“Conner was the most kind-hearted, generous kid,” his stepmother, Krista Merrick-Owens, told Navy Time. She recalled an act of generosity Owens’ shipmates shared when the family traveled to Virginia for the memorial.
“There was a homeless person outside, and Conner went in and bought a bag of groceries for him,” Merrick-Owens recalled. “Conner was always looking out for the underdog and wanted to give.”
Growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Owens was “obsessed with people in uniform” and volunteered with the local fire department, she recalled.
“It was always something in his blood, I guess,” Merrick-Owens said. “He wanted to serve his country.”
Now, as issues aboard the GW have been brought to light, Black said she’s increasingly concerned about Owens’ junior shipmates, even as Navy officials say they have flooded the crew with mental health resources and launched investigations into shipyard life and the three GW April suicides.
“Not only are they missing someone they saw day in and day out,” she said, referencing Owens’ loss. “They’re not getting, it seems, any backing up by their superiors. Just suck it up and deal with it.”
Service members and veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
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.