NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — Former U.S. Navy sailor turned Congresswoman Elaine Luria said she heard concerns, but saw no “red flags” after touring the aircraft carrier that was home to three sailors who recently died by suicide.
Luria (D-Norfolk) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Newport News) both toured the USS George Washington and spoke directly with sailors on Tuesday. The ship, which has been at Newport News Shipbuilding since 2017 for refueling, is now at the center of multiple naval investigations after nine deaths, six of which were suicides, aboard the aircraft carrier in the past two years.
“Every member of the ship is like a family member. So it’s hit the crew hard,” Luria said following her tour.
Three deaths happened in less than a week’s span last month. Discovering if there is possible link between the three is the scope of one probe.
The second opened by the Navy centers around the USS George Washington’s culture and leadership in the wake of those deaths.
“I would say that I think the captain, the command master chief, the command triad, I would say they have their heads and hearts in the right place,” Luria said. “They’ve really been doing everything they can with the resources available through the Navy to help move sailors off the ship, to help get additional resources for mental health care.”
Luria has previously said she would reach out to Navy leadership and urged officials to conduct on-the-job climate surveys. Following her tour, she said much of the issues may be surround the circumstances that is a carrier refueling.
She said while living quarters didn’t look any different than they would when a ship is underway, for many this is their first experience of Navy life.
There is not much to do in the area immediately surrounding Newport News shipbuilding. It’s one of the reasons that on Wednesday, Rear Adm. John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, announced up to 260 sailors will be able to opt to live off-ship in temporary accommodations at Naval Station Norfolk. Meier said the sailors would be shuttled by bus to the ship.
Luria said transportation is likely a stressor that could be impacting sailors living off-ship. Many who work at Newport News Shipbuilding arrive to work up to two hours early in order to secure a parking spot.
“Some of the issues may be as basic as parking. But if you look at the friction for sailors, if it takes them a certain amount of time, if they are not living aboard the ship, to commute, park and get to the ship. You can be adding two to two and a half hours and additional stressors,” Luria said.
Luria, however, agrees with Meier, who during a press roundtable Monday afternoon, said the schedule of the USS George Washington’s refueling is of chief concern.
The refueling of the ship is currently 19 months behind schedule and completion is now estimated in March 2023.
“Probably a year too long. I’ll be really frank about that,” Meier said. He said COVID-19 and supply chain issues are partially to blame.
Meier said during the complex maintenance, the work being asked of sailors is not always what sailors are trained for.
“If I knew then what I knew today I would have certainly delayed crew move aboard,” Meier said.
In a release Tuesday, Scott also he was interested in hearing what steps the Navy is taking to address the reported working conditions aboard the George Washington.
“We have a solemn duty to do everything we can to protect and support those who serve our nation in uniform,” Scott said.
Meier said all departments on the ship will be taking a two-day “operational pause” to focus on improving the quality of life on the ship.
The Navy has sent a clinical psychologist and a mental health clinician to the ship.
Luria said she hopes the Navy considers looking at all issues sailors face when at Newport News Shipbuilding, referencing “a string of incidents” that occurred when the USS George H.W. Bush was there several years back.
Military members can call the Military Crisis Line, which connects active-duty service members and veterans in crisis with Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential, toll-free hotline, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Visit http://www.militarycrisisline.net/, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255, Option 1), or text 838255.
For information on programs, events, presentations and support groups the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers, click here.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-TALK.
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