After seven deaths in a year among the crew of a single aircraft carrier, including three suicides in just over a week, lawmakers and lawyers are demanding answers from the Navy.
The USS George Washington, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier, has been at the Newport News Naval Shipyard in Virginia since 2017 undergoing a years-long refueling and complex overhaul.
Between last year and April, seven sailors assigned to him died, four of which are apparent or confirmed suicides. After a CBS News report on deaths, a Navy spokesperson told The Hill there were three additional suicides before 2021 – in November 2019, July 2020 and October 2020.
The Navy, for its part, acknowledged the carrier’s problems and said it was investigating the deaths.
But Chrystal Verrengia-Bushnell, vice president of 22 Until None, a volunteer organization aimed at providing resources to active-duty service members and veterans, says her group has heard from sailors and their families about the harsh conditions on the George Washington and that some fear accessing military-provided resources because their commanders might find out.
“There’s a lot of mistrust there,” Verrengia-Bushnell said. “We get daily emails and messages on our three social media platforms and via email asking, ‘Is there – is there anyone I could tell you about my order who will not know?
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), who represents the area where the ship is docked, wrote a letter to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday questioning the climate on board the ship.
Luria, a 20-year-old Navy veteran who retired at the rank of commander, recounted his own experiences working on aircraft carriers during lengthy reviews.
“Being in the shipyard is an industrial environment. It’s dirty,” Luria told The Hill. “You don’t have basic services like hot water, lighting, heating and air conditioning, and quality food.”
Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Russell Smith held a bare-knuckle phone call Monday with sailors from the USS George Washington, during which he answered multiple questions about mental health and conditions on the ship.
But Smith raised his eyebrows when he said that while the circumstances could have been better, “what you don’t do is sleep in a burrow like a Marine might.”
Verrengia-Bushnell said Smith “set everyone on fire on this vessel” and “completely ignored all concerns – the lingering concerns of sailors on this vessel”.
“These are concerns that have been continually raised and ignored. And those who suffered in that environment, not only were the worries ignored, but their feelings about it or the hardship it caused them – as if they were ridiculed for it.
Among other actions implemented, the Navy told The Hill that it mobilized a 13-person Psychiatric Rapid Response Task Force to provide onboard services from April 16 to April 19.
Seafarers benefit from tele-mental health opportunities through network mental health providers. In addition, a clinical psychologist and a licensed clinical social worker reported to the ship as temporary duty support.
“While the Navy is a resilient force, we are not immune to the same challenges that affect the nation we serve,” Rear Admiral John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said in a statement. . “As the father of two junior servicemen, I deeply feel these events.”
All of this comes as the Pentagon ramps up efforts to curb suicides among active-duty service members.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has established an Independent Review Panel on Suicide Prevention and Response in March to examine how the agency is responding. The panel, which will begin its work by May 14, will visit nine military bases as part of its work.
It also comes as the House and Senate Armed Services Committees get to work on drafting the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told The Hill that his concern is how the services identify problems on the carrier before they become tragic.
“We worked with different departments. We’ve had families call us and say, “We’re concerned about our son or our daughter serving,” Smith said. “We need to put in place a better process to identify these issues and deal with them before they arise.”
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D), who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he believed there was an opportunity to learn from recent events as the defense bill was drafted .
“I think we have an opportunity to get some insight, to see if it’s limited to the George Washington in particular or if it’s a more general application,” Kaine said. “We can apply the lessons we learned in the defense bill.”