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U.S. Navy Begins to Improve Living Conditions During Yard Periods

USS George Washington
USS George Washington at Newport News, 2019 (USN file image)

Published Nov 22, 2023 5:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

After a string of suicides aboard the carrier USS George Washington and a poor review of amenities at Newport News Shipbuilding, the U.S. Navy is going to new lengths to make (and communicate) the improvements it's making for carrier crews during yard periods. 

The service fell short of its recruitment targets by 7,500 personnel this year - the equivalent of two carrier crews - and it is aware that the prospect of a shipyard assignment is not necessarily attractive for a new recruit. Enlisteds earning less than $2,000 a month have been assigned to a full four-year tour in the yard; some of the crew of USS George Washington had to live aboard the ship for nearly two years while it was under repair. Others had to commute up to three hours each way, leaving little downtime. The union workers alongside them earned twice as much and got to go home at the end of each shift. 

“Our research has confirmed the obvious, something we all knew: nobody joins the Navy to conduct years of important industrial maintenance,” quality of service lead Adm. Scotty Gray told Navy Times. “It’s unsatisfying and undercuts their interest."

As many as 10 George Washington crewmembers took their own lives over the course of the ship's protracted six-year yard period, including three deaths in a week in April 2022. It is a fleetwide pattern: The majority of carrier crewmember suicides occur while in the yard, where food, sleep, basic services and internet access are harder to come by. 

Under pressure from Congress, U.S. Fleet Forces Command carried out an investigation of living conditions among sailors at Newport News, and it has proposed dozens of changes that would improve sailors' pay and overall quality of life - including a chance to switch to a seagoing command before their time in the Navy is up. 

“Sailors joined the Navy ‘to see the world,’ accelerate their lives, or to be ‘forged by the sea,’ but not to see the shipyard or drive a bus,” Naval Air Force Atlantic commander Rear Adm. John Meier said in a statement accompanying the investigation's final report. 

Since the report's publication in May, a Navy task force has been working to address basic shortcomings. The crew of the current carrier in overhaul at Newport News - USS John C. Stennis - now have better off-site housing options, fewer sailors per room in shared housing, onboard mental health care, access to recreational facilities, better access to healthy food, faster access to medical care, and better wifi (though this last benefit is still being evaluated). 

"There's a tremendous amount of work that remains to be done. The effectiveness of it will play out over time, but I feel very confident that the things we're doing are beginning to make a difference," Adm. Gray said.