The string of deaths of sailors assigned to carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73) are prompting Navy leaders to rethink manning for longer ship maintenance periods, the head of the service’s East Coast carrier force said on Tuesday.
George Washington entered Newport News Shipbuilding, in Newport News, Va., in 2017. It was supposed to finish its mid-life overhaul by the end of 2021, but the Navy estimates it will now wrap up in March of next year, more than a year-and-a-half late, USNI News reported this week.
Already clocking in at four years, the refueling and complex overhaul for the carrier is a multi-billion dollar maintenance period that recharges the two atomic reactors that power the ship and includes a down-to-the-bulkhead refresh to allow it to sail for another 25 years.
George Washington is the sixth carrier to undergo an RCOH, but is the first carrier to enter the maintenance period after being stationed overseas. The Forward Deployed Naval Force – Japan (FDNF-J) carrier is on an annual maintenance schedule separate from the 36-month Optimized Fleet Response Plan for the U.S.-based carriers.
Navy officials have told USNI News that they have seen a growth in unexpected work as each space in the 100,000-ton ship has been evaluated.
“The ship has been forward deployed in Japan. And there were a couple of reasons for this, one was what I described as new discovery things that were not anticipated or expected. That added growth to the package. Not lost on any of us is the impact that COVID has had on the workforce and the ability to execute work and there’s been disruption to the supply chain. I don’t think we anticipated that those things would happen,” commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic Rear Adm. John Meier, told reporters on Tuesday.
In its latest update on the carrier’s status to USNI News, Naval Sea Systems Command said in a Tuesday statement that “the RCOH total production work is over 90 percent complete, with some propulsion plant work, catapult work, and combat systems testing remaining. In addition to the production work remaining, USS George Washington will require testing and certification of the entire ship, including the propulsion plants, flight deck equipment, and combat systems, prior to returning to service, as is required of all ships coming out of major availabilities.”
“Contributing factors to the schedule delay include unplanned growth work, labor inefficiencies and vendor supply chain delays,” the statement continued. “The Navy has increased government oversight at the shipyard to preserve schedule and mitigate further schedule delays.”
The unexpected delays in the schedule have exacerbated an already traditionally difficult maintenance period and increased the stress on the crew of the carrier, Meier said Tuesday.
As of this week, the carrier is about 80 percent crewed – about 2,480 sailors – with about 400 living permanently aboard the ship, Meier said. The remainder of the crew operates on the ship 24 hours a day, with a third of the crew aboard at any given time.
Of the 80 percent, George Washington has 60 percent of its chief petty officers and 95 percent of its junior sailors. Many of the junior sailors are fresh from bootcamp and not working the jobs they were trained to do and instead fill in for light industrial work.
“They’re generally not working in rate, meaning doing what they were trained to do. Not universal, some departments are very much in rate. We work very hard to send sailors to add to other ships to develop training. It is, without doubt more challenging for sailors to come into this kind of environment than others,” Meier said.
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) toured the ship this week and told reporters that the stress on the junior sailors is particularly hard.
“There’s a lot of stress on the crew because the availability has run long and been extended again. One of the common things I heard from the junior sailors across the ship is, you know, this is their first duty station. They went to boot camp and got basic training, some additional specialty training, depending on their rating, or their job, and then came to the ship, but this is all they’ve known of the Navy,” she said.
The three junior sailors who died by suicide last month were all on their first tour on a warship that hadn’t been underway since they joined the Navy.
She told reporters the conversations aboard GW led her to questions like, “What is the right manning of a ship in an extended availability like this? Is it the right place? And how long should tours be for junior sailors? Are sailors being assigned for too long outside of the training that they received coming into the Navy?”
In addition to junior sailors working in a shipyard out of their rate, the shipyard is isolated and difficult to leave, Meier said.
“The real challenge there is quality of life aspects of what there is to do in terms of Internet access and the ability to go somewhere to escape the ship. If they want to go out to their car, if they have a car, it may be as much as a 45-minute walk from the ship, actually to get outside of the shipyard to their parking lot just to get their car to go get a hamburger,” he said.
As part of the larger investigation into the manning, Meier said it will consider how to crew a ship in long-term maintenance.
“We have every intention of looking holistically at the distribution process in the Navy, I mean, really go into a whiteboard process of how do we man a ship in RCOH with a clear acknowledgment of supervisory manning and the role that they play with the new sailors that are newly trained coming into an industrial environment,” he said. “Those are clear factors and I expect that to be a fundamental aspect of our holistic investigation.”
Being on a ship in long-term maintenance is among the most difficult periods for sailors, several former service members told USNI News this week.
Since 2019, the carrier has seen six suicides and an additional death of a GW sailor in the last year that a military medical examiner has ruled undetermined, while civilian officials have determined it a suicide. In 2019, three sailors assigned to USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) died by suicide while the ship was in a 30-month maintenance period at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Norfolk, Va.
Overall, the rate of suicide has increased for active-duty service members since 2015, according to the Department of Defense’s most recent suicide report, which published 2020 data in September 2021.
The Department of Defense has not yet published its annual report with 2021 data. That report is expected in fall 2022. It has released quarterly data for all of 2021, but the data do not include rates. Data for the first quarter of 2021 have yet to be published.
Both the annual report and quarterly data suggest Navy suicides are decreasing, although they fluctuated over 2021. The sea service saw its lowest rate of suicide in four years in 2020, USNI News previously reported.
In 2021, the Navy reported a total of 59 suicides, compared to 67 in 2020 and 74 in 2019, according to quarterly data.
While it’s difficult to compare the services without published suicide rates, all services except for the Army reported lower numbers in 2021 than in 2020.
Like the Navy, the Air Force also saw a decrease between 2020 and 2019. The Marine Corps’s suicides increased between 2019 and 2020, but then decreased in 2021.
While the Navy’s suicides have decreased since 2019, the sea service’s rate had increased in 2019, according to the DOD annual suicide report. The rate of suicide has climbed since 2015, USNI News previously reported, when 43 sailors died of suicide.
Across the services, active-duty personnel was more likely to die by suicide if they were male and under 30, according to the annual report.
Access to firearms is a key risk for service members considering suicide, the military has said.
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is concerned about the ongoing trend in deaths by firearms.
“He talked about the fact that so many military suicides are by gunshot. And that one of the things that we want to look at is weapons safety, particularly making sure that the men and women of the force know their options and what’s available to them in terms of keeping firearms safe in the home,” Kirby said. “We very much and he very much welcomed any move by the services with respect to improving firearm safety in the home, as well [as] to include the travel between stations. I mean, that’s welcome. It’s prudent, it’s the right thing to do. Because again, so many suicides are happening due to gunshot wounds.”
Suicide Prevention Resources
The Navy Suicide Prevention Handbook is a guide designed to be a reference for policy requirements, program guidance, and educational tools for commands. The handbook is organized to support fundamental command Suicide Prevention Program efforts in Training, Intervention, Response, and Reporting.
The 1 Small ACT Toolkit helps sailors foster a command climate that supports psychological health. The toolkit includes suggestions for assisting sailors in staying mission ready, recognizing warning signs of increased suicide risk in oneself or others, and taking action to promote safety.
The Lifelink Monthly Newsletter provides recommendations for sailors and families, including how to help survivors of suicide loss and to practice self-care.
The Navy Operational Stress Control Blog “NavStress” provides sailors with content promoting stress navigation and suicide prevention.