The Navy's top enlisted leader -- Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith -- told sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington on Friday that there is little the branch can do to improve the living conditions aboard the ship.
Military.com reported April 20 that the carrier has experienced a string of suicides going back at least 10 months, including three suicides in a six-day stretch earlier this month.
In the wake of these deaths, Smith came aboard the ship and took questions from the crew. According to a transcript provided by the Navy, Smith began the session by telling the sailors that they "shouldn't have clapped yet, cause you don't know if I'm gonna say anything that's worth clapping for, but I appreciate that."
The thrust of several of the questions posed to Smith focused on tough conditions endured by the crew that they say are fueling the crisis. When one sailor noted that "ships in the shipyard have higher rates of mental health issues and suicides," Smith replied that, "Anecdotally, I believe the same thing."
But the top enlisted sailor's remarks offered nothing in the way of planned changes and were viewed by several sailors who attended and spoke to Military.com as lacking compassion.
The remark that stuck out to many of the sailors aboard -- so much so that it generated a substantial reaction in Navy-focused social media groups -- came when Smith told a sailor who had asked about living conditions that the Navy "probably could have done better to manage your expectations coming in here."
Smith explained that "legally and from a safety perspective" the Navy was driven to move some of the crew onboard, before moving to an anecdote about him having to endure unpleasant conditions himself while stationed aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.
The George Washington has been undergoing a massive refueling and complex overhaul at Newport News since 2017. The maintenance period, which typically lasts four years, is usually done halfway through a carrier's 50-year life to refuel the nuclear reactor and see to repairs and upgrades.
Sailors who spoke to Military.com described conditions on the ship that make life aboard incredibly difficult. Some crew members have had to endure an active construction zone, complete with constant noise from power tools and outages to services like electricity and hot water.
Meanwhile, sailors who live off the ship describe hours-long commutes that involve parking far from the carrier and taking shuttle buses and mile-long walks.
"I hear your concerns and you should always raise them, but you have to do so with reasonable expectations and then understanding what … what this is like," Smith told the crew.
'What you're not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing."
The analogy struck one sailor who was present as underscoring the very problem facing the crew. "That should say something .... It ain't even a f---ing combat zone," the sailor said.
"You got people just going to work and coming home and f---ing killing themselves; they're not even out there getting shot at or watching their friends die," they added. "It's just making it sound like the Navy has no intention of doing a single thing about [conditions aboard the ship] to make it even a little bit easier."
Smith went on to explain that hardships like the ones the sailors describe are part of military service. "When someone walks by you at Starbucks when you're in uniform and says 'thank you for your service,' this is one of the things that they're thanking you for," he explained. "I'm sorry I can't give you the answer that you want, but that's kind of where we are."
Military.com spoke with two sailors who were present for Smith's remarks, both of whom have been aboard the carrier for several years. They requested anonymity to avoid retaliation from commanders.
Another sailor said that "to do nothing to improve the quality of life for sailors forced to live on board in the first place is unacceptable."
"To imply that those sailors get to 'go home every night' is just tone deaf and uninformed," that sailor added.
In a statement released late Monday night, Smith said that he is "in ongoing discussions with our senior Navy leaders to share these concerns, and to ensure they are aware of the issues and their impacts on our Sailors."
"My heart is with the Sailors on the USS George Washington, who are hurting from loss," the statement said.
However, to the two sailors aboard the George Washington, it was clear that Smith was not empowered to make changes to improve conditions, many of which are directly tied to the Huntington Ingalls facility where the ship resides, they said.
One of the sailors who spoke with Military.com said that "the conditions in that shipyard are a travesty that senior military leaders have ignored for decades -- especially when HII is receiving billions in tax dollars annually."
"No one's gonna walk away from Huntington Ingalls and this facility," Smith said amid an anecdote about how he "damn near got into physical altercations with varying senior military and civilian leaders trying to get 240 million dollars to get a firefighting trainer built at boot camp" -- an attempt to illustrate the lack of available money for more facilities the crew.
Danny Hernandez, a spokesman for Newport News Shipbuilding, referred Military.com back to the Navy when asked about Smith's remarks. In a previous statement about suicides related to the ship, the company said that its "condolences go out to the Navy families and friends, and our shipbuilders, during this time of loss."
Smith's answers did acknowledge that mental health care in the service is lacking, noting that after his own divorce he needed to get some care and was told that he could have an appointment in six weeks.
"The problem is the nation doesn't have a whole lot of psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health care workers out there in abundance," he said.
The top enlisted sailor briefly touted a decrease in suicides Navy-wide to the crew but quickly admitted: "Does it matter if locally that's not your experience because of what you're dealing with here? Um, it doesn't."
"The Navy has to do better for sailors. It's not an option any longer," the other sailor said.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.