The top enlisted officer in the Navy told a House panel it will be next year before the sea service reports its findings into a rash of suicides aboard carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73), as well as sailors’ living conditions aboard carriers undergoing extensive mid-life overhauls in the nation’s shipyards.
Testifying before the House Appropriations military construction and veterans affairs subcommittee, Master Chief Russell Smith said, “I think it’s too early to say it’s a problem of leadership” aboard George Washington. He was referring to the three apparent suicides that occurred in a week aboard the carrier in April.
In what will likely be his final appearance before the committee, Smith added, “I wouldn’t say Newport News [Shipbuilding] is the problem” either. He noted the yard is working on two carriers simultaneously, making parking near that yard’s gates problematic. The situation discourages sailors from leaving the place where they both live and work.
Smith, who visited the carrier in late April, said instead the sailors continue to live and work in “the heat zone.” He added that he has taken sailors’ concerns from his “all hands” meeting with the crew to senior Navy leaders for action.
Smith said “we can minimize the churn” of having to move off the ship to housing ashore, but 184 sailors opted to stay aboard George Washington likely because they didn’t want to commute back and forth to work or move several times within a few months. After another delay, work is scheduled to finish in March 2023.
The 400 sailors who were living aboard the carrier at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia were all offered the opportunity to move to housing off the ship, but 184 chose to remain aboard, he said.
In a committee better known for “brick and mortar issues,” like barracks, family housing, child care centers, dry docks, warehouses and runways, the members zeroed in on what sailors were actually doing on the ships during the overhauls and who was watching out for their mental health.
“Everybody there is working,” when the ship is in the yard, Smith told the panel. Although what a sailor is doing is different from what they enlisted for or during a deployment, he said the sailor “also has a job of maintaining the equipment” they would be using when at sea.
“Sailors are no better or worse than we were coming in,” Smith said, and noted the Navy stopped making sailors live aboard ships when they were in port as he did when he received his first two assignments. “We don’t do that anymore.”
Although circumstances for a junior, single sailor have changed, Smith stressed it was more incumbent now for chiefs and petty officers “to lean in” and look after sailors’ mental well-being.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, who just completed an inspection of Newport News Shipbuilding and the carrier, expressed similar thoughts. Like Smith at the hearing, Del Toro said in a statement Tuesday, “In the most positive sense of the word, we need to be good Shipmates.” He added, “when you notice someone in your division or work center starting to act different or something just isn’t right with them, don’t be afraid to say something directly to them or to get someone from the medical or resilience team involved as soon as possible. We sometimes call that ‘invasive leadership,’ but I think a better term is involved leadership.”
“Suicide is a massive problem,” Smith said at the hearing.
Speaking personally in his prepared remarks and again in spoken testimony, Smith said the pandemic has exacerbated the need for mental health counseling and shone a spotlight on the scarcity of providers available nationwide.
“We are in desperate need of providers, as wait times for all but the most egregious cases – those at the precipice of suicide – is averaging five to six weeks for an appointment. This lack of capacity and resulting wait times is something I can personally attest to, as I sought care last spring and had to move forward with seeing a civilian provider at my own expense – something our sailors cannot afford, and should not have to endure,” Smith said.
He told the panel that as soon as the carrier’s command requested help from the Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team (SPRINT), it sent help to the carrier to assist sailors. The team is located at the nearby naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va.
Several committee members said what happened aboard George Washington was similar to three suicides aboard carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) in 2019, when it, too, was in for an extended mid-life overhaul at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va.
This week, the Navy reported that other steps have been taken to address longer-term mental health concerns and quality-of-life issues aboard ships undergoing extended overhaul. For George Washington, the Navy is installing cell repeaters in the ship’s skin, offering wireless internet and unveiling an improved morale, welfare and recreation program for off-duty sailors living on the carrier.
On cell phone connections for sailors in shipyards or on deployment, Smith said, “there is something to being connected with someone at home” that improves morale.
Suicide Prevention Resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255
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.