Suicide spike among Navy aircraft carrier crew highlights crushing conditions for junior sailors

The Navy enjoys a burst of positive PR, enjoying the glow of the hit summer sequel Top Gun: Maverickin which the timeless Tom Cruise recreates his iconic role as hotshot fighter jock Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.

The Original Cold War Era Superior gunreleased in 1986, was popular with the Navy, as it motivated a bumper crop of new recruits.

Now, 36 years later, faced with a shortage of pilots, the Navy hopes history will repeat itself.

But the reality of life in the Navy these days, especially for enlisted sailors working below decks, is a far cry from the Hollywood pipe dream of adrenaline-fueled thrill rides interspersed with games of beach volleyball. sexy.

Take, for example, the approximately 2,700 sailors assigned to the USS George Washingtonwhich is halfway through a five-year refit and will not be put to sea until 2023.

Many crew members live off the ship and commute to work, but for the most junior sailors with nowhere to go, daily life is one of intense stress of marathon workdays and sleepless nights in a non-stop construction zone.

In April, three sailors from GW killed themselves in a single week, including 19-year-old Xavier Sandor, who had to sleep in his car after his 12-hour shifts and whose father told NBC News that when he urged his son to ask for help, he replied, “Dad, they don’t give a fuck. They don’t care.

The spike in suicides has cast a harsh light on a growing mental health crisis caused by crushing working conditions and prompted the Navy to move 200 sailors who had been living on the carrier to new accommodations ashore.

Hannah Crisostomo, an aviation bosun on the carrier, attempted suicide last year after being assigned night repair duties and saw no way out of her five-year engagement. year.

There is no two weeks notice and no out,” Crisostomo told NBC, saying that when she asked for help, she was belittled by her superiors.

Immediately after the suicides, the Navy sent a team of psychiatric counselors to the ship, expedited telemental health appointments and referrals, and sent its senior enlisted chief to give a combination pep talk/health check. reality to the ship’s crew.

“If you’re less happy because you don’t feel like you’re doing the thing you came here to do… That’s not optimal. We know that,” Master Chief Petty Officer Russell Smith said, according to a Navy transcript of his bare-knuckle meeting with sailors to discuss what he called the “shit you have to go through” when serving. on a ship in dry dock. .

Yes, Smith says, “parking sucks,” the food isn’t “gourmet,” and sometimes they have to turn off the water and shut down “some of the other hotel services” on the carrier — but, he said. said, at least you don’t “sleep in a burrow like a Marine”.

“I think we probably could have done better to manage your expectations,” admitted Smith. “You’re trying to fix a warship… When someone walks by you at Starbucks while you’re in uniform and says ‘thank you for your service’, that’s one of the things they’re telling you about. thank.”

In congressional testimony last month, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said there was “no greater responsibility” than the safety of sailors and Marines and was decidedly more sympathetic. to the isolation and stress that the crew of the george washington experienced for several years.

“Life on a shipyard itself is difficult enough. When you’re in the shipyard that long, it presents additional challenges,” Del Toro told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We must collectively do a better job of providing the necessary resources…to provide a better quality of life for shipyard sailors.”

The Navy conducted three investigations into what went wrong aboard the carrier, but morale and mental health issues were well known before the wave of suicides.

A February GAO report highlighted the harsh realities of life on US Navy ships that are in port for repairs and included testimonies from sailors who were overworked and fatigued.

“Vessel crews described operating in hazardous conditions, with safety measures bypassed or ignored, and working 12-20 hours in port, canceling leave and also working long shifts in order to carry out on-going maintenance. road,” the report said.

See: “A sailor’s life: overworked, undertrained, understaffed, stressed” Washington Examiner newspaper, March 1.

And it’s not just the sailors in port who are stressed to the max.

A damning investigation into how a Seawolf-class attack submarine, the USS Connecticutcrashed into a seamount last October concluded that the accident, which could have sunk the $2.4 billion boat, could have been easily avoided by “careful decision-making and following required procedures”.

The accident was blamed on the lack of seamanship of the skipper, his deputy and four other crew members who, although theoretically qualified, formed “a particularly weak team”, according to the investigation. All six lost their jobs.

Eleven crew were injured and 50 of the 116 crew were so traumatized by the near-submarine disaster that the ship’s doctor advised they “received mental health treatment”.

Overwork and fatigue were not cited as factors in the submarine’s accident, but are thought to have contributed to two separate offshore collisions in 2017 involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain.

And harsh dockside working conditions may have contributed to the 2020 fire that destroyed the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard because it was under maintenance in San Diego.

A young sailor accused of setting fire to the ship is tried in September.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in April, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley about the troubling trend.

“The GAO reports that sailors work 80 to 100 hours a week and sleep less than six hours a night, and they have mental health issues,” she said. “We saw it on the Fitzgerald, we saw it in the ship that was destroyed, the $4 billion ship in San Diego. What are we going to do to get the Navy to take this seriously?”

“I think the Navy takes this seriously. It’s not a simple solution. It’s related to OPTEMPO [operational tempo]replied Milley. “They’re running hard, and we’re asking a lot of our navy, like we do the army and the air force, but the navy is especially stressed because we’re extending the ships, and they’re out there. for long periods of time… Their manning levels are below optimal manning per ship, so that’s a problem.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says he is focused entirely on mental health and suicide issues in the military, and in March he established an independent review panel to help better understand suicide, the prevent and treat the invisible wounds that lead to it.

As for the hell experienced by young sailors during repairs to george washingtonAustin testified last month: “There are choices that have been made or will be made in the future in terms of how to accommodate sailors when this repair is underway… [It] it was certainly not expected that the ship would be in such a long repair cycle. Nevertheless, I expect leaders to make the right decisions. And I can’t wait to see what the surveys will show us.

Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner senior writer on defense and national security. His morning report, Jamie McIntyre’s daily defenseis free and available by e-mail subscription on dailyondefense.com.