Navy Leaders Begin to Acknowledge Mistakes as Investigations into Carrier Suicides Expand

USS George Washington pier side at Norfolk Naval Station in Norfolk, Va.
This Sept. 30, 2016, photo shows the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George Washington pier side at Norfolk Naval Station in Norfolk, Va., Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

In their first public comments since the publication of news about a string of suicides aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, Navy leadership is acknowledging missteps and ordering investigations into the climate aboard ships undergoing repair in shipyards.

Rear Adm. John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, told reporters Tuesday, "If I knew then what I know today, I think we would have clearly delayed crew move aboard," referencing the decision to have hundreds of sailors live on the ship while it was still undergoing major maintenance in Newport News, Virginia.

Sailors have described the conditions on board to as including incessant, overbearing construction sounds, punctuated by power, ventilation and hot water outages, and a commute that involves driving to offsite parking, shuttle buses and long walks. Meier said that he is aware of some sailors who spent more than three hours a day just commuting.

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Meier also announced that he had ordered two separate investigations -- one to investigate whether the string of deaths is linked and another to "look more deeply at command climate, command culture, onboarding, and what I would describe as systemic stressors to working in the shipyard environment."

The two-star admiral said that the decision to make either report public will be decided by his superiors.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., a former naval officer who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and its seapower panel, was also aboard the carrier Tuesday along with Meier's boss, Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of Fleet Forces Command.

In a press event after her visit, Luria explained that she asked Caudle "why does it take such a tragic string of events for the Navy to really stop and look at all of the things that could have been contributing factors and change their practices?"

She said the admiral conceded that, while Navy leaders are "very good at once there is a problem identified finding solutions and corrective actions … they are not always as proactive in certain circumstances in identifying problems before an incident of some type happens."

Luria observed that that slow response "could be cited when you look at the collisions on McCain and Fitzgerald and other events over time."

In addition to the investigations, Meier also noted that the Navy added additional mental health professionals to help the crew and, as reported last week, began moving sailors who live on the ship full-time to barracks rooms.

Meier explained that the ship started moving the crew back aboard between April and October of last year. A press release from the shipyard announced that the ship opened one of its cooking and eating areas on April 16, 2021.

But 19 months of delays helped drag out the time the predominantly junior crew members were living aboard in a construction environment.

Meier noted that, while about 95% of the ship's junior sailors have been assigned, only about 65% of its senior enlisted sailors have been.

"Not having that senior enlisted leadership, but having a very large contingent of junior sailors ... I would certainly say that, anecdotally, that could very well be a contributing factor," Luria said.

While extra help is being funneled to the ship, several sailors who spoke with wondered why it took so many deaths to make it happen.

Meier said that the ship will be taking a two-day operational pause as leaders continue "to look for better ways to improve quality of life here onboard the ship to include cell phone repeaters, Wi-Fi access in the mess decks, and MWR support for off-duty sailors." MWR, or Morale, Welfare and Recreation, refers to services like computers, lounge areas and other recreational facilities for sailors to enjoy in their downtime.

Those remarks are a sharp contrast to April 22, when the Navy's top enlisted leader -- Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith -- told sailors that the service "probably could have done better to manage your expectations coming in here."

"What you're not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing," Smith told a sailor who asked a question about quality of life aboard the ship.

Luria emphasized that, until the news of the deaths was made public, the quality-of-life concerns that are now being tackled did not appear to be on the Navy's radar.

The congresswoman, who represents the area around Norfolk, said she would encourage the Navy to address "all of those stressors that make sailors' lives in that environment more difficult … but they haven't made any specific requests for that in this budget."

The Navy's latest budget proposal was released at the end of March.

According to figures offered by Meier, the George Washington had suffered six suicides in two years at that point. It would suffer three more in April. Another death in July 2021 is considered a suicide by the Virgiina Office of the Medical Examiner, while the Navy's finding calls it "undetermined."

Luria noted that "this particular string of events" would be discussed at at least one of the congressional hearings where she will ask questions of Navy officials in the coming weeks.

She said the Navy told her the current, problematic parking arrangement -- which adds hours to some sailors' commutes and has been a common issue described to by service members serving on the George Washington -- costs $15 million for every carrier that undergoes the typically four-year refueling maintenance program.

"If we invested $50 million up front in building a parking garage a block outside the gate, you could alleviate that and our long term," Luria said, explaining that "we could actually invest those resources and solve the problem for the long term."

"Those are the kind of questions I plan to follow up with the Navy," she added.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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