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Top Navy official: Sailor burnout a concern amid COVID-19 crisis

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told NBC News the pandemic has forced ships to remain at sea for longer periods of time.
Image: Adm Mike Gilday
Adm Mike Gilday speaks with Courtney Kube during an interview.NBC News

Four months after more than 1,000 sailors were infected with the coronavirus aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, the Navy has managed to keep its case count low but concerns about sailor burnout are high as they spend longer periods at sea.

“I think we're likely going to have to adjust our operating schedules,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said in an exclusive interview with NBC News.

“Now we have to have ships stay at sea another month or so longer as they do their training and instead of taking leave right after training before deployment, they roll right into deployment. And so we're going to have to take a closer look at whether or not we can sustain that for a prolonged period of time, and make some recommendations up the chain of command."

Gilday said the Navy has been able to maintain carrier deployments so far, but the service will have to prioritize where to send available forces if the pandemic continues to stress the force.

As of Friday, the Navy has the lowest number of active cases of COVID of any of the military services – with 1,481 – according to a Pentagon official. The Army has the most, with 7,340, followed by the Air Force with 2,039 active cases. The Marine Corps has 1,492 cases, the Pentagon official said.

The Army is the largest service overall, with 475,000 soldiers compared to roughly 340,000 in the Navy.

One sailor died during the outbreak on the Roosevelt, and the carrier was sidelined in port in Guam for two months. The incident and its fallout shined a spotlight on the Navy’s COVID-19 response and led to the firing of the ship’s commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, and the resignation of the acting secretary of the Navy at the time, Thomas Modly.

Gilday said the Navy has learned from the Roosevelt incident and has been successfully preventing transmission on ships, but he acknowledged changes, like fewer port visits and longer time at sea, have put more stress on the sailors and hurt their quality of life during deployment.

“We're not pulling to port as frequently as we had before,” in order to avoid sailors being exposed to COVID, Gilday said.

Instead, the ships do “stand-down days,” in which as many sailors as possible are given a day off.

“Everybody needs a break every once in a while and I do think that the toughest challenge I believe in a situation like this is trying to understand what that threshold is and not pushing it too far,” he said. “You kind of know when people are tired, people are frazzled."

In the midst of the pandemic, the Navy also suffered a massive fire onboard the USS Bonhomme Richard last month, an amphibious assault ship that was in port in San Diego at the time.

Gilday said restoring the USS Bonhomme Richard to its status as an amphibious assault ship, “could be too heavy a lift,” but there may be other options for how to restore the ship.

He said he visited the ship and observed that 11 of its 14 decks were “devastated by the fire.”

“The damage is extensive,” Gilday said. “It's just a question of what the options might bring to bear. And we have to take into account, both the cost and the time it will take to repair.”

The fire broke out on a Sunday morning, and Gilday said the Navy expected to have it under control that evening, until a series of explosions tore through the ship.

“That caused the fireballs to go up exhaust stacks and up elevator shafts, and it caused the fire to spread very quickly both forward and aft and up,” he said. “That's where it became out of control because of the explosions.”

In the year since Gilday took over as the Navy’s senior sailor, a wave of protests against police brutality have swept the nation and a presidential election race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is now entering its final phase.

The Navy recently released guidance to sailors about how to remain apolitical while in uniform.

“I think we have to watch the use of social media,” Gilday said. “I think we have to watch protests and you know what sailors should and should not be involved in. And I think what we've tried to do is to be as explicit as we can with our guidance because what we find is that when we're too vague. It's unhelpful.”