Navy investigating rash of suicides aboard USS George Washington

The Navy will look into command climate, mental health and other factors on the aircraft carrier.

The Navy said it is now investigating a rash of deaths among sailors working on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

There have been seven deaths in the last year among the 2,700 sailors working aboard the ship as it is overhauling at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia.

Five of those deaths are apparent suicides, three of which were in the space of one week last month, leading the service and others to wonder about the mental health among the Nimitz-class carrier. About 400 of the sailors lived aboard the ship as it was docked for maintenance.

Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, directed Rear Adm. John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, to start an investigation into the deaths of the sailors and correlations, command climate, cultural issues and the systemic relationship between them, Naval Air Force Atlantic spokesman Cmdr. Robert Myers told Federal News Network.

The USS George Washington’s website features a link to the free, confidential Military Crisis Line on its “About Us” webpage.

“Meier directed Rear Adm. Brad Dunham, deputy commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, to lead a larger team to assess various quality of life considerations for aircraft carriers currently undergoing maintenance,” Myers said. “This team will review areas such as command climate, safety, habitability, personnel/manning, mental health, security, human factors, Navy policy regarding sailors residing aboard the ship during extended maintenance availabilities, and disciplinary and administrative procedures.”

The Navy is already taking some steps to address mental health concerns. It has embossed a 13-person special psychiatric rapid intervention team to provide services from April 16-19. The ship also added an additional clinical psychologist and social worker. Sailors are being given expedited appointments with mental health services on shore in Hampton Roads. Telehealth options are also available.

There were 400 sailors living on the ship during the overhaul. On May 2, the captain offered to bring 260 sailors ashore.

“Quality of life such concerns such as cell phone repeaters in the skin of the ship, WiFi, and better morale, welfare and recreation support for off-duty sailors, are being pursued as well,” Myers said. “The ship is installing cell phone repeaters to allow all cell phone carriers to have service in select areas aboard the ship, to include the mess decks.”

NBC News reported Thursday that the Navy is offering other morale boosting activities like a video game competition and soccer tournament.

However, sailors told NBC that morale remains low and some feel that the efforts are too little, too late.

The USS George Washington is not expected to complete its maintenance until March next year. Sailors have reported poor living conditions like noise, garbage aboard the ship, sickening smells and long commutes.

Late last month, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) sent a letter to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday asking for answers on conditions and climate aboard the ship.

“I am calling on the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, and CNO Gilday to provide the House Armed Services Committee and members of Congress with a full accounting of what steps are being taken to address command climate, safety concerns, mental health, and other issues that may have contributed to this tragic loss of life on USS George Washington,” she said. “Every member of our armed forces must be treated with respect, and we have an obligation to ensure that our active-duty personnel on USS George Washington and around the world are being heard and supported while serving our country.”

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