Navy leadership acknowledges mistakes and orders an investigation into the climate aboard ships undergoing repair in shipyards in their first public comments since news of a succession of suicides aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington was published.
“If I knew then what I know now,” said Rear Adm. John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, “I think we would have clearly delayed crew move aboard,” referring to the decision to house hundreds of sailors on the ship while it was undergoing extensive maintenance at Newport News, Virginia.
In an interview with Military.com, sailors described the conditions on board as persistent, overpowering construction noises interrupted by power, ventilation, and hot water outages, as well as a commute that included driving to offsite parking, shuttle buses, and long walks. Some sailors, according to Meier, spend more than three hours a day just commuting.
Meier also revealed that he has authorized two independent investigations, one to see if the deaths are connected, and the other 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 stated that his superiors will determine whether or not to make either report public.
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., a veteran naval officer who serves on the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower group, and Meier’s boss, Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of Fleet Forces Command, were also aboard the carrier Tuesday.
Luria said 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?” at a press conference after her visit.
While Navy officials are “every good at once there is a problem identified finding solutions and corrective actions,” she said the admiral admitted that “they are not always as proactive in certain circumstances in identifying problems before an incident of some type happens.”
Luria said that “when you look at the collisions on McCain and Fitzgerald and other events over time,” the slow response may be blamed.
In addition to the probes, Meier stated that the Navy hired more mental health professionals to assist the crew and that sailors who reside on the ship full-time were being moved to barracks rooms.
Between April and October of last year, the ship began bringing the crew back aboard, according to Meier. According to a press release from the shipyard, one of the ship’s culinary and eating facilities will open on April 16, 2021.
However, the 19-month delay helped to extend the time that the majority of the crew members were living aboard in a construction atmosphere.
While around 95 percent of the ship’s young sailors have been allocated, only about 65 percent of the ship’s senior enlisted sailors have been assigned, according to Meier.
“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 added.
The ship will take a two-day operational break, according to Meier, as the crew continues to “look for better ways to improve quality of life here onboard the ship, including cell phone repeaters, Wi-Fi access in the mess decks, and MWR support for off-duty sailors.” Morale, Welfare, and Recreation, or MWR, refers to services such as computers, lounge rooms, and other recreational facilities available to sailors during their downtime.
Those words contrast with those made on April 22, when Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith, the Navy’s highest enlisted leader, warned 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.
Until the news of the deaths became public, Luria said, the Navy did not appear to be concerned about the quality-of-life issues that are now being addressed.
The lawmaker, who represents the Norfolk area, said she would push 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 most recent budget proposal from the Navy was released at the end of March.
According to Meier’s estimates, George Washington had committed six suicides in the previous two years. In April, it would suffer three more losses. The Virginia Office of the Medical Examiner considers another death in July 2021 to be a suicide, but the Navy’s findings are “undetermined.”
Luria stated that “this particular string of events” would be discussed at least one of the congressional sessions she will attend in the coming weeks to question Navy personnel.
According to her, the Navy told her that the current, problematic parking arrangement costs $15 million for each carrier that undergoes the typically four-year refueling maintenance program, which adds hours to some sailors’ commutes and has been a common issue described by service members serving on the George Washington.
“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 added, 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 said.
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