After months spent investigating a series of suicides of Hampton Roads-based sailors last year, the Navy has concluded that it failed its own personnel on an individual and systemic level.
The Navy released Thursday the findings of a comprehensive investigation into command climate and sailor quality of life and details 48 recommendations. It is meant to address what Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea called “years worth of systemic shortcomings.”
“The tragedy of the suicides in the Norfolk area shows that the Navy can and must do a better job of caring for sailors and their families,” Honea said in a virtual media roundtable Thursday morning.
The investigation focused on the USS George Washington, which came under scrutiny after three sailors died by suicide within a week last year while the carrier was undergoing an extended overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding. An initial investigation found “life stressors” contributed to the life-ending decisions of the three sailors, but concluded the deaths were otherwise not connected.
Less than eight months later, the Norfolk-based Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center reported four suicides within 28 days. A separate Navy investigation also released Thursday found those deaths were not connected.
But the investigations into both commands reflected a failure in maintaining a suitable Navy standard.
“In both cases there was an organizational drift — a slow erosion over time — conditions that were clearly not right became acceptable,” reads a memorandum signed by Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, and Carlos Del Toro, secretary of the Navy.
The investigation into the Washington was launched with the purpose of evaluating the challenges unique to a shipyard environment. During the investigation into potential connections between the Washington suicides, sailors reported constant noise and cold temperatures aboard a shell of a ship that was periodically without hot water and power.
“The events of the past year have caused me to reflect on the ideas of ‘habitability’ versus ‘suitability.’ Our shipyard ships may be habitable and able to sustain life (a minimum standard), but not suitable from a quality of life standport (an acceptable standard),” Rear Adm. John Meier wrote in his endorsement of the investigation’s findings.
The Washington entered dry-dock in 2017 for its midlife refuel and complex overhaul. That process typically takes four years. But the pandemic lengthened it by two years.
Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, said throughout the investigation, it was “pointedly obvious the Navy had failed the George Washington.” Since entering its maintenance period, the Washington has experienced nine suicides among its crew dating back to 2017.
The investigation recommends the Navy create a split-tour program that ensures first-term sailors are not assigned to dry-docked aircraft carriers for more than two years.
“We definitely want a sailor who joined the Navy to go to sea, to get that opportunity to see the ocean, get into a port call, experience why that person joined and not spend that entire tour in a maintenance facility,” Caudle said.
Meier also touched on this issue, writing in his endorsement letter: “These shipyard sailors hoped for more, to be part of something bigger than themselves, and be part of a team … Sailors joined the Navy ‘to see the world,’ accelerate their lives, or to be ‘forged by the sea,’ but not to see the shipyard or drive a bus.”
It is also recommended every sailor assigned to a ship in an industrial environment receives allowance for off-ship and off-base housing — a benefit that is not currently available to junior sailors.
“When not underway, no sailor should be required to live on a ship or barge, with the exception of the duty section,” Caudle said.
The investigation also recommends working with local government and industry to improve parking for sailors assigned to public and private shipyards.
At one point, the Navy partnered with Newport News Shipbuilding to secure 2,100 parking spaces across four Hampton Roads locations for Washington sailors. But the investigation found local infrastructure is still “insufficient” to support the crews of multiple aircraft carriers in overhaul and new construction in the shipyard.
“There remains inadequate parking, transportation, access to food and nutritional options, training space, physical fitness facilities and housing options available to support the number of sailors assigned to ships and submarines in the shipyard. This directly contributed to poor Sailor QoS and morale,” Caudle wrote in his endorsement of the findings.
Three of the parking locations are considered “too far to walk” and require a shuttle ride to the shipyard. Travel time from two locations, one in Chesapeake and one in Suffolk, averages more than 50 minutes one way.
A former executive officer of the Washington, who was not named, told investigators: “I said this was unacceptable but eventually saw the writing on the wall and stopped fighting because the discussion was going nowhere … I believe all RCOH carriers experience the same parking issues. This is a solvable problem and it’s really about money. It’s an issue of the burden we put on sailors versus the cost we are willing to pay for that parking.”
The Navy plans to establish a single, accountable senior civilian for the development of a long-term quality of service plan that is specific to Newport News Shipbuilding in an effort to improve the overall quality of life for shipyard-bound sailors.
“I am never going to try to give you a reason why it takes a large mishap incident, a 9-11 event, to make the Navy — my organization, which I love — wake up and attack a problem that we should have seen coming,” Caudle said.
In conjunction with the Washington quality of service investigation, the Navy released a “new course for Navy quality of service” memorandum.
According to the memo, the Navy will work for the next 90 days to identify a definitive timeline on when all recommendations would be implemented. But some long-term solutions will require congressional funding or authorization.
“The conditions experienced by those assigned to the USS George Washington and MARMC are not the result of any act or inaction by any single leader. Collectively, Navy senior leadership, officer and civilian, let our standards slip — and in doing so we let our people down,” the memorandum reads.
Resources for service members and veterans struggling with mental health, including 24-hour crisis hotlines, can be found below:
•The Military Crisis Line: call 1-800-273-8255, ext. 1; or text “273Talk” to 839863
•Military OneSource: 1-800-342-9647
•National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988 — call or text
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