String of deaths on Navy aircraft carrier spurs calls for change

After seven deaths in a year among the crew of a single aircraft carrier, including three suicides in just more than a week, lawmakers and advocates are demanding answers from the Navy.

The USS George Washington, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier, has been at the Newport News, Va., shipyard since 2017 for a midlife, multiyear refueling and complex overhaul.

Between last year and April, seven sailors assigned to it have died, four of them being apparent or confirmed suicides. After a CBS News report on the deaths, a spokesperson for the Navy told The Hill that there were three additional suicides before 2021 — in November 2019, July 2020 and October 2020.

Sailors on the ship have spoken to outlets including Navy Times and NBC News about conditions aboard, with one saying they also attempted suicide, in large part due to working conditions.

The Navy for its part has acknowledged the issues on the aircraft carrier and says it is investigating the deaths.

But Chrystal Verrengia-Bushnell, the vice president of 22 Until None, a volunteer organization aimed at providing resources for 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 the resources provided by the military because their commanders could find out.

“There’s a big distrust there,” Verrengia-Bushnell said. “We get emails and messages daily on all three of our social media platforms and through email asking, ‘Are there any — is there anybody that I could talk to you about my command won’t find out?’”

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 aboard the ship.

Luria, a 20-year Navy veteran who retired at the rank of commander, recounted her own experiences working on carriers in long overhauls.

“Being in the shipyard, it’s an industrial environment. It is dirty,” Luria told The Hill. “You don’t have the basic services like hot water, lights, heating and cooling, and the quality of the food.”

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith held an all-hands phone call with sailors on the USS George Washington on Monday, during which he fielded multiple questions about mental health and conditions on the ship.

But Smith raised eyebrows when he said that even though circumstances could have been better, “what you’re not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing.”

Verrengia-Bushnell said Smith “gaslit everybody on that ship” and “completely disregarded all the concern — the ongoing concerns of the sailors on board that ship.”

“These are concerns that have been continually brought up and ignored. And those who have been suffering in this environment, not only have the concerns been ignored, but their feelings on it or the hardship that it’s causing them has been — like they’ve been derided for it.”

Among other actions implemented, the Navy told The Hill that it mobilized a 13-person Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team to provide onboard services from April 16 through April 19.

Sailors are being provided tele-mental health opportunities via network mental health providers. Also, one clinical psychologist and a licensed clinical social worker have reported to the ship as temporary duty support.

“While the Navy is a resilient force, we are not immune from the same challenges that affect the nation that we serve,” Rear Adm. John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said in a statement. “As a father of two junior service members, I feel these events deeply.” 

All of this comes as the Pentagon ramps up its efforts to address suicides among active-duty service members.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin established a Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee in March to review 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 2023.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told The Hill that his concern is with how services are identifying problems on the carrier before they turn tragic.

“We’ve done some work with the different services. We’ve had families who have called us and said, ‘We’re concerned about our son or daughter who’s serving,'” Smith said. “We need to get a better process for identifying those problems and dealing with them before it happens.”

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D), who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he thinks there’s an opportunity to learn from recent events as the defense bill gets drafted.

“I think we have an opportunity to get some information, see whether it’s limited in specific just to the George Washington or whether it’s a more general application,” Kaine said. “We can apply lessons we learned in the defense bill.”

Tags Adam Smith Elaine Luria George Washington Michael Gilday military suicide Tim Kaine USS George Washington Virginia

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