Top Navy Leaders All Say Sailors' Quality of Life Needs to Improve, But Specifics Remain Slim

Sailors replace impact pads on the flight deck aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower
Sailors replace impact pads on the flight deck aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), Aug. 4, 2022. (Abbigail Beardsley/U.S. Navy)

Navy leaders are starting to put greater emphasis on the need to improve the lives and working conditions of the service's most junior sailors as they wrestle with regular news headlines about suicide clusters, problems at shipyards and barracks, and anemic recruiting figures.

The push to emphasize "quality of service" -- the Navy's catchall term for a host of issues that deals with everything from barracks living conditions to access to mental health care -- is now a top talking point. At a major Navy conference this month in Virginia, it was front and center as admirals and top enlisted leaders all stressed the need to make gains and improvements in the lives of the rank and file.

But relief is not likely to be immediate or sweeping. Many of the ideas or programs that Navy officials are talking about are either broad and lacking specifics or are just getting off the ground. Plus, the sea service has so far not provided many metrics or specific goals to measure its success or failure.

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"There's a lot of things that we need to do," Adm. Lisa Franchetti, the chief of naval operations, said during the Navy Surface Association's annual symposium earlier this month. "People have different expectations now about what their life and what their career is going to be like."

Franchetti said sailors now expect a higher standard of living conditions, as well as more nutritious food, easier access to time off, and other resources.

The service’s top enlisted sailor, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea, also told an audience of largely enlisted sailors that the struggles he endured when his career began decades ago "aren't challenges or struggles that I want to have for our young men and women that are serving today."

"When I was a young sailor on a ship ... I would have liked to have a barracks room," Honea said. "I would have liked to not have to live on board that ship."

Both Franchetti's and Honea's remarks come just months after a government watchdog report found that barracks rooms across the military suffer from problems that range from plumbing issues all the way to bedbug infestations and squatters.

While the report looked at conditions across the military, it specifically noted that the Navy and Marine Corps reported that about 5,000 sailors and 17,000 Marines lived in substandard barracks as of March 2023.

The report generated outrage from congressional lawmakers almost immediately, and both Republican and Democrat lawmakers called the findings "deplorable," "unacceptable" and "appalling."

The Navy has especially struggled with accommodating sailors when the ships to which they are assigned leave their bases and head to shipyards for maintenance periods that can last for years.

Vice Adm. Brendan McLane, the man who oversees the Navy's surface fleet, told reporters on a recent call that he is aware "sailors sometimes struggle in that [shipyard] environment."

"It's not like what you think the Navy is going to be like -- when you're in a shipyard -- and quite frankly, it's probably the least fun thing that we do in the Navy," McLane said.

The results of those struggles have become deadly for some sailors.

The case of the USS George Washington -- an aircraft carrier that spent more than five years undergoing a massive refueling effort in a Virginia shipyard -- became a clear symbol of what happens to a crew when sailors are denied basic amenities like quiet, comfortable living quarters.

The ship had nine suicides between November 2019 and its departure from the shipyard in May 2023. Another George Washington sailor, assigned to a maintenance center in nearby Norfolk, Virginia, also died by suicide in that time span as part of a separate suicide cluster.

After broke the story, sailors came forward with stories of being forced to live aboard a ship that was essentially an industrial construction zone, enduring power cuts and loss of heating and ventilation in the dead of winter. Later investigations revealed many sailors resorted to sleeping in their cars.

One top Navy officer later said the ship experienced "a 9/11-like event".

A similar, smaller suicide cluster also happened on an aircraft carrier on the Pacific coast, and Rear Adm. Christopher Alexander, the commander of that carrier's strike group, noted that the findings of their investigation, "coupled with those of the investigation into suicides aboard USS George Washington ... indicate that sailors assigned to ships in extended maintenance availabilities may be at higher risk."

Despite the elevated profile of the issue and the admission by leaders that solutions need to be implemented, it's not clear when relief will hit the fleet. Navy admirals who spoke last week didn't offer up many new, concrete programs or offerings.

Franchetti and two senior master chief petty officers gave nods to early efforts to offer sailors Wi-Fi, better barracks, and increased food options at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard that hosted the USS George Washington. Those pilot programs were announced in mid-November.

Force Master Chief Jon Lonsdale, the top sailor for the Atlantic surface fleet, told on Jan. 11 that Huntington Ingalls is "a natural place to work on these things, to work out the kinks to see if these things work before you scale it out to the rest of the fleet."

"I don't think we'd be at 100% a couple years down the road," Force Master Chief Larry Lynch, the top enlisted sailor for the Navy’s surface fleet, told in an interview alongside Lonsdale. But he noted that the Navy is "working in a positive direction" after what it learned from the George Washington tragedy.

Meanwhile, the Navy's top officer in charge of personnel, Vice Adm. Rick Cheeseman, said that he's studying options to scale down how many sailors are stationed on an aircraft carrier while it's in a shipyard period.

Cheeseman told reporters that he hopes the results of the study, which he expects "later this spring," will allow him to help design "an orderly transition from operational into yards" for Navy ships and save many sailors from having to be at the shipyard in the first place.

"What will it look like? I'm not sure," Cheeseman said, before adding that he thinks "it'd be radically different."

McLane also floated the idea of "resiliency fairs" -- crew-wide gatherings where Navy leaders explain the various resources available to them ahead of a shipyard period.

That is "something that I want to be able to do throughout the Navy," he said.

Related: Wi-Fi for All Bases? Navy Weighs Quality-of-Life Improvements Amid Poor Living Conditions for Sailors in Shipyards

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