Sailors assigned to ships undergoing years-long maintenance periods appear to be at a heightened risk of death by suicide due to inadequate living conditions, a Navy report found.
The chances of a sailor aboard an aircraft carrier committing suicide are approximately two times higher in the shipyard than at sea, according to the investigation released on Thursday. Over the past five years, 57% of suicides aboard aircraft carriers occurred while the carrier was in a shipyard.
The investigation, which examined living conditions of sailors assigned to ships going through an overhaul, was ordered after three sailors assigned to the carrier George Washington committed suicide within a single week in April 2022.
Sailors on the USS George Washington during its overhaul at Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipyard in Virginia were forced to deal with inadequate resources, including parking, housing and access to mental health resources, the report found.
“Throughout that investigation and assessment of quality of service, it was pointedly obvious that the Navy had failed the George Washington through a host of things that we put that ship into,” Admiral Daryl Caudle, the head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, told reporters Thursday.
The report includes 48 recommendations to improve the quality of life for sailors aboard ships going through maintenance periods. Many of the recommendations address systemic problems sailors have dealt with for years.
“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. “I’ll just tell you there is no excuse for that.”
Recommendations on assignments, parking, mental health
One recommendation made by the report is to ensure first-term sailors get a chance to go out to sea, instead of spending their entire initial enlistment period in a shipyard. The three April 2022 suicides were all first-term sailors and their first ship assignment was the USS George Washington.
Other recommendations examined inadequate resources for sailors in shipyards. For instance, according to the report, sailors regularly complain about how long it takes to get from parking lots to the ship. In some cases, it can take sailors up to two hours to get from one of the four satellite parking lots. The report recommended the funding of a centralized parking lot.
The report also found there aren’t enough mental health providers to meet the demand for these sailors. The USS George Washington had a weeks-long backlog of patients seeking care.
Even if there were adequate mental health resources, it’s not clear sailors would use them. Of those who responded to a health survey, 58% aboard the USS George Washington reported last year they do not trust military mental health providers, the investigation said. Caudle said Thursday leadership needs to work on destigmatizing seeking help for mental health issues.
The Navy has begun implementing some of the recommendations but does not have a detailed timeline for the larger projects, like refurbishing the housing for some low-ranking sailors at Huntington Hall in Newport News, Virginia, where three sailors must share a bathroom and do not have a kitchenette in their rooms.
The USS George Washington began its overhaul, meant to last only four years, in 2017. Since then, nine sailors assigned to the ship have died by suicide, including the three in April 2022.
Rear Admiral John Meier, the commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, wrote in the report that the review was “long overdue.” He wrote that the Navy has expected its people to muscle through, however “over time, the length of time spent in the shipyard has increased, and due to aging infrastructure, living conditions have degraded to an unacceptable state.”
Part of the solution, according to the report, is to incentivize the on-time completion of maintenance periods. During overhauls, the carrier’s nuclear reactor is refueled and the ship receives maintenance and updates that cannot be accomplished while the ship is at sea.
“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 where the ships are being repaired,” Caudle said Thursday.