Navy Secretary promises to improve conditions on carrier plagued with suicides

Petty Officer 3rd Class Ann Huffman took her life aboard the USS George Washington. (Facebook)

Dave Ress

Daily Press

The Navy’s two top officials visited USS George Washington Tuesday to hear from sailors about living and working conditions while the ship is in Newport News Shipbuilding for its overhaul and refueling.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro held group discussions with crew members broken up by rank while Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday walked the ship’s spaces to speak with sailors and observe the work and living conditions.

The Washington saw three apparent suicides within a week in April to make a total of six in the past two years. Its overhaul is taking longer than expected — the latest word is that it won’t be out of the yard until March, instead of an originally planned August 2022 date later postponed to December. Time in a shipyard means difficult living and working conditions for the crew.

“I’ve had several conversations with both the Secretary of Defense and the Deputy Secretary and we all know this is hard and want to make it better,” Del Toro said in a statement. “We want the crew’s feedback and recommendations so we can continue to take immediate actions to improve their quality of life and the availability of mental health care services.”

Del Toro and Gilday told sailors it is essential that they look out for one another.

“When you notice someone in your division or work center starting to act different or something just isn’t right with them, don’t be afraid to say something directly to them or to get someone from the medical or resilience team involved as soon as possible. We sometimes call that ‘invasive leadership,’ but I think a better term is involved leadership,” Del Toro said.

“There is no treatment or prevention if we can’t openly speak about our struggles and stresses,” said Gilday. “When someone needs help, we must get them help without judgment or hesitancy.

The Navy has two investigations underway. One is looking at the three April deaths and the circumstances preceding them. The other seeks answers to more extensive questions about what sailors experience while their ship is in the yard and what sorts of changes might help.

Nearly 300 sailors who had been living on the ship have been moved to on-shore housing, while the Navy has installed cell repeaters, wireless internet and stepped up morale and welfare programs.

The Navy also has dispatched an additional clinical psychologist and a mental health clinician to supplement the Washington’s medical team, and the Washington’s sailors have immediate access when calling the Hampton Roads appointment line as well as being provided expedited appointing for mental health referrals.

The Navy also sent a 13-person Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth after the third sailor’s death last month, which occurred on the carrier.

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