Senators Demand Navy Reforms for Sailors on Dry-Docked Ships

Senators demand Navy reforms for ships in drydock
USS George Washington at Newport News, 2019 (USN file image)

Published Jan 6, 2023 3:25 PM by Paul Benecki

The U.S. Navy is again coming under pressure to reform the working environment for sailors assigned to warships undergoing long periods of repairs and maintenance at various shipyards. The goal is to prevent the rising cases of suicides and mental health problems among sailors on these ships.  

In the wake of an investigation that exposed systemic failures aboard the dry-docked aircraft carrier USS George Washington following three suicides in a span of a week in April last year, two senators are demanding that the Navy carry out further reforms on the requirements that govern sailors deployed to vessels in shipyards.

Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal have written to the Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro “castigating the Navy for condemning sailors to conditions that were simply not habitable” onboard George Washington. They cite the evidence that the poor conditions directly triggered the suicide of one of the three sailors.

“The Navy’s recent report on the April 2022 suicides of three members of the USS George Washington’s crew exposes significant failures of our collective responsibility to care and provide for the men and women who volunteer to defend our nation. To that end, the Navy must go further than the recommendations in the report and reform requirements governing the shipyard lives of sailors,” said the letter dated January 5.

In its investigation report released last month, the U.S. Navy contends that the three suicides were not connected although they recognize that they were triggered by common stress factors, including the quality of life in shipyard. The Navy’s report states that while the conditions onboard the dry-docked aircraft carrier were a contributing factor in the suicides, each sailor had their own motivations and life stressors. The sailors they said had no social or working relationships with one another.

In their letter, Senators Murphy and Blumenthal assert that the death of Master of Arms Seaman Recruit Xavier Mitchell-Sandor was a direct result of multiple mistakes made by the ship’s leadership. They write that there were a series of warnings that could have prevented his suicide.

They acknowledge that while undergoing a refueling and complex overhaul, the warship’s shipboard environment is hazardous and noisy with round-the-clock shipyard operations and few quiet hours. Electrical power, heating, air conditioning, and hot water they say are frequently interrupted across various sections of the ship for up to weeks at a time.

Welfare and recreation services, such as television, they note were not available onboard. In addition, there were limited places to sit and relax. They said that many sailors, including MASR Mitchell-Sandor, opted to sleep in their cars rather than sleep onboard the ship even though the parking lot for personal vehicles was over a mile away from the ship. 

“When asked about these concerns during the Navy’s investigation, the ship’s leadership was unaware of many of the challenges facing the ship’s crew,” the Senators wrote in their letter. “This is unacceptable, and the Navy should immediately reform regulations for crew move-aboard to minimize exposing sailors to this environment until strictly necessary.”

They add that sailors with duty tours on ships that will be undergoing maintenance for the entirety of their tour should be provided permanent housing and should never be required to move onboard.

Due to an outcry following the suicides, the Navy in May last year decided to scale down the number of personnel living aboard the aircraft carrier with about 260 out of the 400 sailors berthed on board transferred to off-site temporary housing.  The Navy has indicated that it would provide additional onshore housing as practical.

According to the Senators, mental health is another big issue that the Navy must address. They contend that access to and screening for mental health concerns among the crew of the vessel failed because the staff was overwhelmed, under-resourced, and separated from the ship’s crew. Sailors seeking routine mental health screenings they write experienced waits of up to two months for care due to a significant backlog and an under-resourced ship’s psychologist. The warship did not have deployed resiliency counselors assigned to the ship. Their offices were located off ship requiring approximately a three-mile walk.

“The Navy must immediately reform regulations to establish 'unwaivable' requirements for manning, screening, and access to mental health care during long periods of shipyard maintenance,” they concluded in the letter.

Since 2017, George Washington has been docked at the Newport News Shipyard undergoing a midlife refit that has taken longer than planned due to the COVID-19 related challenges and the discovery of additional repair requirements. The ship was scheduled to be out of the yard by 2021 but is now expected to remain in the shipyard till later this year.