On the morning of April 11, Capt. Brent Gaut, the commander of the USS George Washington — an aircraft carrier undergoing major shipyard work at Newport News, Virginia — got on the ship’s intercom.
Two sailors had died on April 9 and 10, and Gaut was alerting the crew that those deaths were the eighth and ninth suicides the ship had experienced in nine months, three sailors who heard the announcement told Military.com on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation.
One explained that Gaut, talking to the crew first thing in the morning, went on to tell sailors to reach out and talk to someone if they needed help and that resources were available to them. That sailor described it as what “they say after they have a suicide every time.”
Four days after the announcement, another sailor was “found unresponsive on board the ship,” a Navy spokesperson confirmed to Military.com, and the sailor later died at a hospital in Newport News.
Two of the sailors who spoke with Military.com said that Gaut later told the crew that the latest death was a member of the ship’s security team, who had a self-inflicted wound.
Suicides have risen sharply in the military. In 2020, 384 active-duty service members died by suicide, a 44% increase from 2015. Since 2014, 4,842 service members have killed themselves. In a recent hearing, congressional lawmakers said the military is not doing nearly enough to prevent these deaths. Despite the persistence of the problem, a cluster of suicides like Gaut described to his crew is still highly unusual.
Asked about the reports from members of the crew, a Navy spokesperson did not confirm or deny Gaut’s remarks, instead outlining a total of seven deaths, four of which had not previously been disclosed by the service.
The fact that the carrier is in the shipyards — and for far longer than originally planned — has created a difficult environment, according to the sailors who spoke to Military.com.
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier has been undergoing a refueling and complex overhaul at Newport News since 2017. The massive maintenance period, which typically lasts four years, is usually done halfway through a carrier’s 50-year life to refuel the nuclear reactor and see to repairs and upgrades.
In 2019, the ship was scheduled to be done in 2021. By 2020, that had changed to 2022. Danny Hernandez, a spokesman for Newport News Shipbuilding, told Military.com in an email that “COVID-19 impacts and unplanned growth work resulted in delays to the schedule.”
For sailors, the delays have meant continuing to labor under unpleasant and taxing conditions.
George Washington crew members who don’t have a housing allowance or otherwise live off ship had to move back aboard last year despite the fact that the carrier is still being worked on, all three sailors noted.
“They live in a construction zone,” one sailor said. “There’s grinding, needle gunning, there’s always problems with ventilation, there’s always problems with hot water,” they went on.
Two of the sailors recalled that, during the winter months, the lack of ventilation meant that the ship got so cold the epoxy-covered floor would crackle underfoot.
“That’s why the shipyard sucks,” one sailor said.
“It’s not like one big glaring problem, it’s just a bunch of small stuff that adds up and adds up and adds up, but it never goes away.”
Lt. Cmdr. Robert Myers, a spokesman for the commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, told Military.com that the Navy is “aware of four separate incidents that tragically resulted in the death of four service members assigned to the USS George Washington that occurred at off-base locations over the past 12 months.”
These deaths would have been in addition to the three from April 9, 10 and 15 for a total of seven instead of the 10 that Gaut told his crew. These four deaths had not been publicly acknowledged by the service before now.
Myers referred Military.com to the local officials “who investigated these unfortunate events as to confirm the cause of death” and did not say whether suicide was the cause.
He added that a rapid-response team of mental health professionals had been sent to the carrier and that they were working with the crew as of Wednesday.
Since the initial acknowledgment of the three April deaths, the Navy has identified two of the sailors.
Retail Services Specialist 3rd Class Mikail Sharp was found deceased at an off-base location in Hampton, Virginia, on April 9, and the body of Interior Communications Electrician 3rd Class Natasha Huffman was found at a separate off-base location in Hampton on April 10, the Navy said in a statement released Tuesday.
Both sailors had been assigned to the George Washington straight out of their respective training schools and boot camp, according to records provided by the Navy.
“While these incidents remain under investigation, there is no initial indication to suggest there is a correlation between these tragic events,” Myers said in an earlier statement over email.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby reiterated that the deaths are under investigation during a briefing Tuesday, before adding that “our thoughts and prayers go out to the families for those sailors who are now no longer in the ranks.”
In addition to difficult living conditions for those on ship, all three sailors who spoke to Military.com highlighted a parking situation that was so disorganized and haphazard — a system of off-site parking lots, shuttle buses, and long walks to the ship — that even sailors who lived minutes from the shipyard had to leave hours in advance of the workday. That additional time meant that a sailor could be getting up around 4 a.m. and not returning home until 6 p.m. that evening, isolating them from their families.
One sailor explained that a recent change in parking meant that sailors who may live close to the shipyard “have to drive 45 minutes to go park at Chesapeake” — across the James River from the ship — “just to get bused 30 minutes back over to this side of the water.”
Another sailor said that the level of attention that leadership gave to the parking assignments, amid a drumbeat of suicides, led him to conclude that the ship’s leaders “obviously give a s— more about their parking spaces than they do the actual people here.”
Myers’ statement said that “every death of a Sailor is tragic and affects our Navy family.”
“As with any incident, our leadership team remains fully engaged to assess the morale of the crew to ensure their health and well being and to foster a climate of trust that encourages sailors to ask for help,” he added.
Hernandez, the Newport News Shipbuilding spokesman, said that “out of respect for our customer and to protect the privacy of military families, Newport News Shipbuilding does not discuss the death of our US Navy teammates with the exception of a workplace accident.”
“Our condolences go out to the Navy families and friends, and our shipbuilders, during this time of loss,” his statement added.
The latest Navy statement noted that “chaplains, psychologists, counselors and leadership are engaged with the crew and are providing the appropriate support and counseling to those grieving the unexpected loss of our shipmates.”
If you or someone you know needs help, the Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.
— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.