NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — U.S. Navy officials continue to look into a recent series of suicides in the crew assigned to the USS George Washington Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.
On Tuesday, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday traveled to Newport News Shipbuilding, where the USS George Washington is currently undergoing a refueling and complex overhaul.
The Navy said Del Toro met with the ship’s senior leadership and medical team as well as sailors aboard the ship. He held group discussions with the sailors broken up by their rank.
Gilday toured the ship and spoke with sailors as he observed the work and living conditions.
The ship visit is one of several by lawmakers and military officials in recent weeks following three crewmember suicides that happened in less than a week’s span in April.
Following the news about those three deaths, officials also confirmed seven sailors on the aircraft carrier died in the last year. Four of those were suicides.
The co-founders of the Brandon Caserta Foundation, which works to end suicide in the military, said a USS George Washington sailor also recently attempted suicide. He survived, and will undergo treatment.
The Navy is now looking into the aircraft carrier’s culture and leadership. Some of the deaths are still under investigation, the Navy said.
One sailor previously assigned to the ship spoke with 10 On Your Side and described a dismissive attitude among the chain of command when crew members sought help.
The Navy released information following the officials’ Tuesday visit to the ship.
“Our goal today is very simple, we want to hear firsthand, from everyone on board the challenges they are facing,” said Del Toro in a prepared statement in the Navy news release. “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. 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.”
Both Del Toro and Gilday stressed the importance of sailors supporting each other as they talked with crewmembers Tuesday.
“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 added that “both leaders were impressed by the professionalism, enthusiasm, team work, and involvement to get USS George Washington (CVN 73) back out to sea.”
In the news release, the Navy highlighted some changes it’s already made aboard the USS George Washington, including moving about 300 sailors to off-ship housing. Previous news reports state about 400 sailors had been living on-ship. The total crew consists of about 2,700 people.
Some sailors are required to remain on the ship for essential duties such as running critical equipment, maintaining fire and flood watches, providing services to the crew, and conducting ship security.
Additionally, in mid-April, the Navy sent a Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team to assist with short-term mental health needs. There’s also a licensed clinical social worker serving as a resiliency counselor and an organic Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Team made up on sailors who are “first responders” for those who are at-risk.
“While the CNO and I both acknowledge these are steps in the right direction, we know there is more we – Big Navy – can do to support you. And we are prepared to do that,” Del Toro said. “We want to ensure no one else feels as if their only option is to take their own life.”