Navy probe prompted by suicides condemns shipyard conditions: 'We let our people down'
The inquiry concluded that several suicides at the Newport News shipyard last year were not connected. But the deaths underscored pervasive problems,, particularly among young enlisted sailors doing long-term ship maintenance.
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A Navy investigation prompted by a spate of suicides is recommending widespread improvements in housing, food, parking and internet for sailors as well as changes to mental health and other personnel programs. The much-anticipated report lays out a sweeping condemnation of living and working conditions at naval shipyards that had languished for years but were brought to light by the deaths.
“We let our people down.” Navy leaders said in response to the findings.
The inquiry concluded that several suicides at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia last year were not connected or caused by any one issue. But the deaths underscored pervasive problems and poor living conditions, particularly among young enlisted sailors doing long-term ship maintenance at that base and others around the United States.
“The focus on the maintenance mission has degraded our ability to take care of our most junior and at-risk sailors,” said the investigating officer, Rear Adm. Bradley Dunham, in his findings released Thursday. “This was not one seminal event, decision or individual’s action, this was a series of actions and decisions shared by many that resulted in the wholly unnecessary conditions and challenges our sailors face.”
Navy leaders said they have taken a number of steps already to improve conditions at Newport News. Additional planned changes are broader and call for similar moves at other shipyards where the same problems exist. Recommended increases in sailor pay, housing benefits, food, health care, job choices and counseling would affect service members across the board.
In a memo accompanying the report, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, concluded that “collectively, Navy senior leadership, officer and civilian, let our standards slip — and in doing so we let our people down.” They blamed it on “organizational drift” and a slow erosion of conditions over time that became unacceptable.
The investigation began last year after seven service members assigned to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington died over a 12-month period ending April 2022, including three in one week. The carrier was docked for overhaul at Newport News shipyard.
Of the seven deaths, three were health-related or accidental, but four were suicides, including the three during the week of April 9-15. A Navy investigation released last December found that the suicides were not connected, but that poor quality of life onboard the ship was a “contributing factor” in one of the deaths.
As that investigation was going on, four more sailors died by suicide between last Oct. 30 and Nov. 26 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center in Norfolk, Virginia, setting off a second examination. All four sailors had been assigned to limited duty jobs there due to injuries, health or other issues. A review concluded that those deaths were unconnected, but cited factors such as family, finance and career issues, alcohol use and access to personally owned firearms.
That review recommended improvements to the system that puts sailors into limited duty slots when they are unable to perform their regular jobs due to issues ranging from injuries and pregnancy to mental heath and other problems. It also called for expanded mental health care and increased staffing, which are similar quality of work and life concerns reflected in the shipyard report. In their memo, Del Toro and Gilday outlined needed changes in limited duty assignments as part of the broader effort to improve sailors' quality of service.
“Every sailor unable to perform normally assigned duties deserves full, direct support,” said Del Toro and Gilday, adding that sailors must be assigned “in the right numbers, to the right commands, with access to the right resources.”
They acknowledged that the shipyard and personnel problems “will not be corrected with the stroke of a pen,” but will require a long-term effort with more money, resources and policy changes.
Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, said improvements to housing, parking and other services at Newport News have been made, and mental health facilities have been set up away from the ship, where crew are more likely to seek help. He said Navy leaders will be seeking more money from Congress; they had no specific totals or timelines for the changes.
“We’re going to have to do what’s right, whatever the costs,” Master Chief Petty Officer James Honea added in a call with reporters Thursday.
The Navy said it has requested $258 million in the 2024 budget for housing, parking garages and recreation facilities. Other changes, including pay and additional personnel for counseling and health care, could take years to get congressional approval and funding.
The shipyard report dug deeply into sailors' work and living conditions when they are assigned to a ship that is undergoing major overhaul or maintenance in a Navy shipyard. The George Washington, for example, was brought to Newport News for a four-year overhaul that includes refueling the nuclear reactors and other intensive repair work.
In one case, a young sailor who later died by suicide had been sleeping in his car due to noise on the ship. The investigation noted that he was counseled on the matter, but there was no evidence of any follow-through by leadership. In other cases, sailors complained that lack of nearby parking and the difficult commute were adding hours to their days. Depending on the location, sailors could face a three-hour commute from the time they left home, drove to the parking lot, took the shuttle bus and then walked the final stretch to the ship.
Since 2021, there have been five suicides among George Washington crew members. One death earlier this year is under investigation. Across the Navy, there were 70 suicides last year, compared with 59 in 2021. There have been 25 this year, as of April 30.
One key change, Caudle said, will ensure that young sailors do not spend the bulk of their first enlistment term on a ship docked for maintenance.
“We definitely want a sailor who joined the Navy to go to sea, to get that opportunity to see the ocean, get into a port call, experience why that person joined, and not spend that entire tour in a maintenance facility where the ship’s being repaired,” Caudle said.
Del Toro and Gilday said shipyard assignments are essential but should not consume a young sailor's early years. They endorsed recommendations allowing sailors to seek other jobs after one year, and limiting shipyard duty to two years.
Asked if anyone was disciplined as a result of the problems, Caudle said no one person was liable. Instead, Navy leadership was accountable and must ensure no other ships endure the problems the George Washington had.
Honea, the Navy’s most senior enlisted member, said leaders must be empowered to make changes. “I can’t write good enough policy to replace bad leadership,” he said. “But I can place good leadership that will overcome bad policy every single day.”