The senators from Connecticut sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, urging him to examine the conditions aboard USS George Washington (CVN-73) after a string of suicides raised concerns about the extended overhaul period and availability of mental health services.
Three sailors died by suicide within a week of each other in April, USNI News previously reported. An investigation released in December found that the suicides were not linked, while also highlighting a strained mental health system too overwhelmed to handle the number of sailors seeking services.
Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) highlighted the mental health strains in their letter to Del Toro, while also calling for a deeper examination of shipyard conditions.
Of the three sailors to die by suicide, Master of Arms Seaman Recruit Xavier Mitchell-Sandor, who was from Connecticut, was the only one to live aboard the ship during its extended refueling and complex overhaul period. Murphy and Blumenthal pointed to Mitchell-Sandor’s death when highlighting the poor conditions sailors are experiencing while living on a ship that is undergoing repairs.
“Master of Arms Seaman Recruit Xavier Mitchell-Sandor’s decision to take his own life was not the result of a single failure, but a cascading series of events that forced a young man to believe he had no way out. His death is a tragedy, but there were multiple mistakes made by the USS George Washington’s leadership and warnings that could and should have prevented it,” the senators wrote.
The Navy investigation looked at the conditions on the ship, finding that construction affected sailors’ ability to sleep. The report also noted a lack of mentorship for junior sailors aboard the carrier.
Another investigation into larger issues of life aboard ships in maintenance is still ongoing.
Murphy and Blumenthal pinpointed the loud and hazardous conditions on the ship that led to unpleasant living. Sailors, like Mitchell-Sandor, took to sleeping in their cars rather than in their berthings, the senators wrote.
“This is unacceptable, and the Navy should immediately reform regulations for crew move-aboard to minimize exposing sailors to this environment until strictly necessary. Sailors with duty tours on ships that will be undergoing maintenance availability for the entirety of their tour should be provided permanent housing and never required to move onboard,” according to the letter.
The investigation found that leadership was unaware of concerns with berthings. Sailors, who reported feeling depressed about working during the overhaul period, expressed discomfort about raising issues with leadership, according to the December investigation.
Blumenthal and Murphy also raised concerns about the strained mental health system for sailors aboard George Washington. The ship had one behavioral health technician, one ship’s psychologist, or psych boss, and two substance abuse counselors for a crew of 2,700 sailors, USNI News previously reported.
The psych boss and behavioral health technician raised concerns about the inability to see all the sailors who requested appointments, according to the investigation. Wait times for an initial appointment could be as long as two months.
Sailors also expressed concerns about seeing mental health professionals due to the stigma associated with military service and psychological issues.
The two senators urged the secretary to examine the mental health conditions for sailors aboard George Washington.
“It is completely intolerable for the Navy to place sailors onboard a ship with these conditions and tremendous barriers to accessing care and support,” according to the letter. “The Navy must immediately reform regulations to establish unwaivable requirements for manning, screening, and access to mental health care during long periods of shipyard maintenance.”
Del Toro’s office did receive the letter, Navy spokesperson Lt. Gabrielle Dimaapi told USNI News on Friday. The office is working on a formal response.
“Suicide prevention is an ongoing investment. We will not wait to make changes that will save lives,” according to a statement from Del Toro. “The Department of the Navy (DON) is committed to creating a protective environment that promotes trust and connection to reduce suicidal ideations and behaviors.”
A number of efforts are ongoing to address suicide, including training 15,000 sailors to be Suicide Safe Responders, according to the statement. A suicide prevention group is also working to develop more suicide prevention plans and policies.
The two senators are the latest officials to raise concerns over conditions aboard George Washington following the three suicides.
Former Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a retired nuclear-qualified surface warfare officer, also visited George Washington in the spring. The ship is undergoing its refueling and complex overhaul at HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding.
“There’s a lot of stress on the crew because the availability has run long and been extended again,” Luria told reporters after touring the ship in the spring. “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.”