NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — As the aircraft carrier USS George Washington remains for a fifth year in overhaul and refueling at Newport News Shipbuilding, one of its former crew members is speaking out in the aftermath of a string of deaths among the crew.
“Thomas” did not want to use his real name, but documentation shows his service on board the Nimitz class carrier for two years until March 2022.
He says three apparent suicides in a single week in April, and seven deaths overall in the past year, do not surprise him. Thomas described a dismissive attitude among the chain of command when crew members sought help.
“They would say, ‘Don’t talk to [the crew members in crisis]. They’re fine, they’re all right,’ and you’re like ‘No, they’re not all right, they need help, they need to talk to someone,'” the sailor said.
Thomas said at one point he was assigned to work constantly for two weeks straight, taking time away only for sleep.
“Leadership was bad. They would always talk down to you. They would intimidate you to make you work harder,” he said. “‘We’re gonna write you up for insubordination, and if you get written up for insubordination you’re going up to [captain’s] mast, and that’s your career on the line.'”
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) questioned the Navy secretary Thursday morning as part of a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Kaine wanted to know about what can be done in cases like the Washington, which has been in the shipyard in Newport News for refueling and overhaul since 2017.
“That means that some sailors will spend their entire career on a ship that never goes to sea, and they’ll never perform the duties that they trained for after graduating from boot camp,” Kaine said.
“We need to develop a plan that is more robust than what we’re currently doing, especially for aircraft carriers, because you’re introducing upwards of 2,500 sailors into an already challenging environment,” Secretary Carlos Del Toro responded.
“I joined the Navy to be a gunner’s mate, to work on weapons. On the ship I never touched weapons,” Thomas said.
Thomas expects more deaths unless major changes are made.
“I can see it still in the future. It sucks to say that, but I wish it would be different,” Thomas said.