The commanding officer of the USS George Washington told his crew Thursday that the Navy will begin to move sailors off of the aircraft carrier following a string of suicides and complaints from service members about conditions aboard the ship, whose projected departure from the shipyards has been pushed back once again.
Capt. Brent Gaut announced that the ship will move 260 sailors "to an offsite barracks-type living arrangement on Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth" -- specifically, a Navy Gateway Inn and Suites -- starting Monday, according to a recording of the announcement reviewed by Military.com.
"We'll be able to expand that number at about 50 additional beds per week as we figure out exactly what is needed," Gaut continued.
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The Navy confirmed the plan when asked by Military.com and a spokesperson added that the moves will continue “until all Sailors who wish to move off-ship have done so.”
The moves comes at the end of a month that saw three sailors aboard the ship die via suicide, after a previously undisclosed string of suicides going back to at least July of last year.
Military.com has been able to confirm at least five suicides by sailors assigned to the ship in the last 10 months -- the Navy has disputed the cause of death for one of those sailors -- and eight in total since November 2019.
It also follows an April 22 visit to the ship by the Navy's top enlisted official, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith, in which the crew was told the service is largely powerless to improve conditions.
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" before informing the crew that raising concerns should be done "with reasonable expectations and then understanding what ... what this is like."
"What you're not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing," he added.
According to the commanding officer, the ship currently has 422 sailors living on board. Since sailors typically do not receive an allowance for housing until the E-5 rank, those living on board a ship while it's in a shipyard tend to be the most junior crew members.
Gaut couched the development as the result of his team's focus on improving the crew's quality of life, mental health and morale.
The captain noted that sailors will still have to sleep aboard the ship when they stand duty -- a Navy practice in which a portion of the crew remains aboard the ship overnight to be ready to respond to emergencies. Gaut also said sailors will be able to keep living aboard if they so choose.
Gaut said that this arrangement will end about four months before the ship leaves the shipyard, before giving the crew a date that delays the delivery of the carrier to 2023. The Navy requested that Military.com not publish the specific date out of concerns about operational security.
The delay is at least the third for the ship since it pulled into the shipyard at Newport News. In 2019, the ship was scheduled to be done in 2021, but a year later that had changed to 2022.
Danny Hernandez, a spokesman for Newport News Shipbuilding, said that work on this ship "is nearing completion and our shipbuilding team is laser-focused on redelivering a fully recapitalized carrier to the fleet as early as possible."
The news comes as details about who has died aboard the aircraft carrier and how are slowly coming to light amid mixed messages reported by the crew.
Sailors reported to Military.com that Gaut told the crew on April 11 that the ship had had nine suicides in nine months. Another death followed on April 15; Gaut told the crew it also was a suicide. The Navy has yet to confirm or deny that Gaut relayed those numbers to the crew.
When Military.com reached out to the Navy last week, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Meyers, a spokesman for Commander Naval Air Force Atlantic, said that the service was aware of only seven deaths -- not necessarily suicides -- aboard the ship in the last 12 months.
The Navy did not provide details on who those sailors were and referred Military.com to local law enforcement for cause of death.
A later Navy statement said that the three April deaths were "apparent suicides" while the other four 2021 deaths were as follows: a suicide in December; a "health-related death" in October; an "undetermined" death in July; and another "health-related death" in May.
The Navy also disclosed that there were three additional suicides dating back to November 2019.
This effectively brought the official count to seven deaths in 12 months, with four suicides. Again, no names were provided.
In speaking with crew members and listening to other recordings of Gaut addressing the ship, Military.com was able to identify some of the other sailors who have died aboard the George Washington in the last nine months.
The July death, which the Navy's statement called "undetermined," was ruled by the Virginia Office of the Medical Examiner to be a suicide, according to documents provided via email by the office.
Still, when Gaut addressed his crew on Tuesday, he said the ship had experienced three suicides and three additional deaths in nine months -- inconsistent with the Navy's official statements and his prior statement to the crew, according to the sailors who spoke with Military.com.
Regardless of the final count, the George Washington has experienced a cluster of suicides unheard of in recent years, though suicide rates have been climbing alarmingly for service members across the services.
Rear Adm. John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said in a statement this week that "while the Navy is a resilient force, we are not immune from the same challenges that affect the nation that we serve."
"My staff and I are working daily, and aggressively, to ensure support and resources are available to sailors in the shipyards, at sea, and at home," he added.
If you or someone you know needs help, the Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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