The secretary of the Navy is expected to visit the USS George Washington in Virginia on Tuesday, following a spate of suicides among sailors assigned to the warship and concerns over onboard living conditions, according to military officials and sailors on the ship.
Crew members have been instructed to clean up their work spaces on the aircraft carrier to “make it look presentable,” ahead of Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro’s arrival, according to a sailor who works on the George Washington and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
At least five sailors on the George Washington have died by suicide in the last year, including three within a span of a week last month, military officials said.
The warship has been undergoing extensive repairs at the Newport News Shipyard in Virginia since 2017.
Several current and former George Washington sailors told NBC News that their struggles were directly related to a culture where seeking help is not met with the necessary resources, as well as nearly uninhabitable living conditions aboard the ship, including constant construction noise that made sleeping impossible and a lack of hot water and electricity.
They also said that when a ship goes through lengthy overhauls, most young crew members are relegated to clean-up and repair tasks rather than the jobs they enlisted in the Navy to do.
Junior sailors make up about 95 percent of the George Washington crew, according to Lt. Cmdr. Robert Myers, a Navy spokesman. Repairs will likely not be completed until March 2023, he said.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, when asked about the George Washington suicides, Del Toro said the Navy needs to “do a better job providing resources to the ship” and providing a “higher quality of life for those sailors in the shipyard,” News 3 reported.
Del Toro, who was sworn in last August, is tasked with "addressing the most pressing challenges confronting the U.S. Navy," including "strengthening a naval culture of inclusiveness and respect," according to his Navy biography.
His visit comes weeks after Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith, the service’s senior enlisted leader, came onboard the aircraft carrier and delivered controversial remarks to crew members.
In his address in late April, Smith disagreed when a sailor said that living standards on the ship were not “necessarily up to par.” He said that the sailors get to go home most nights and that they were not “sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing,” according to a transcript of the address, released by the Navy.
“I think we probably could have done better to manage your expectations coming in here,” Smith said. “I hear your concerns and you should always raise them, but you have to do so with reasonable expectations.”
Most of the roughly 2,700 sailors on the George Washington go home after their shifts, but about 400 who live out of state or don’t have off-site housing were residing onboard.
Since the three suicides in April, the Navy has offered to relocate those sailors into nearby military housing facilities. As of May 13, more than 280 sailors have taken the Navy’s offer, while the Navy works to secure additional accommodations for the remaining crew, Myers said.
In a new statement, the Navy said the command “cares for the health and safety of every sailor” assigned to the George Washington, and that leadership has “taken unprecedented measures” to ensure that all sailors receive “immediate, holistic, and well-rounded care.”
“While leadership works hard to identify potential at risk personnel that may benefit from this support,” the statement said, “the Navy continues to encourage our sailors to ask for help and any service member who reports needing help will be provided with these resources and services.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.