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In wake of suicides — 6 in past 2 years — Navy to offer alternative housing to sailors living on the Washington

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) is in the East China Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Paul Kelly/Released)

The Navy is offering sailors living on USS George Washington, which has seen three apparent suicides within a week in April, a chance to move out while the carrier is undergoing an overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding, Rear Adm. John Meier said.

It’s part of an effort to help a crew shaken by those deaths and dealing with the many challenges of working on a ship while in the shipyard, he said.

“To lose three sailors … that is devastating,” he said.

Meier said the Navy has offered alternative housing, in barracks at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, to 260 of the roughly 400 sailors who are assigned berths on the Washington. The Navy has identified additional spaces at the naval shipyard as well as roughly 100 spaces at Langley Air Force Base and is looking for other facilities.

None would require sailors to pay for housing — most of the sailors living on the Washington are fairly new to the Navy and haven’t qualified for the Department of Defense’s Basic Housing Allowance benefit. And some of the sailors offered say they aren’t interested, because it’s more convenient — particularly in terms of commuting time, Meier said.

In addition, the Navy is setting up additional cellphone repeaters and wi-fi facilities — a major challenge for sailors’ quality of life is finding things to do when they’re not working.

Meier said the ship’s berthing spaces are habitable, and while they do from time to time suffer spells when power, air conditioning and hot water are out, as do most ships while maintenance work is going on, the ship’s logs indicate that unplanned outages are responded to immediately. When outages are planned, sailors can move to areas that aren’t affected.

The Washington’s overhaul is taking longer than expected — the latest word is that it won’t be out of the yard until March, instead of an originally planned August 2022 date later postponed to December — and that’s been a factor affecting morale, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, said, after visiting the ship and its crew on Tuesday.

“I heard some things that are concern, but I didn’t see any red flags,” Luria said, when asked if the ship’s officers, chiefs and leading petty officers might have created a climate that could have contributed to the suicides.

Maier said the pace of work doesn’t seem to have been a factor in the three April deaths — currently, the most intense effort is in the nuclear reactor department, and none of the sailors who took their lives worked there. Over the past two years, three other Washington sailors died by  suicide.

He said the Navy has two investigations underway. One is looking at the three April deaths and the circumstances immediately preceding them. The other seeks answers to more extensive questions about what sailors experience while their ship is in the yard and what sorts of changes might help.

Meier said he’s wondering if the decision to move sailors back onboard in April 2021 might have come too soon, especially given the way the pandemic limited what they could do when they weren’t working.

The Washington will have department-by-department “operational pauses,” in which sailors will stop their usual work for briefings and discussions about how to look out for signs a shipmate may be feeling suicidal, as well as about resources available to all of them to maintain their morale.

The Navy has dispatched an additional clinical psychologist and a mental health clinician to supplement the Washington’s medical team, and the Washington’s sailors have immediate access when calling the Hampton Roads appointment line as well as being provided expedited appointing for mental health referrals.

The Navy also sent a 13-person Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth after the third sailor’s death last month, which occurred on the carrier.

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