U.S. Navy Finds No Connection Between Suicides Aboard Carrier at NNSY

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

Published Dec 21, 2022 10:02 AM by The Maritime Executive

A U.S Navy investigation has established that the three suicides aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington within one week in April were not connected, although they were triggered by common stress factors, including the quality of life in shipyard.

The findings of the investigation released by the Naval Air Force Atlantic show 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 had no social or working relationships with one another.

The suicides involved Master-at-Arms Seaman Recruit Xavier Mitchell-Sandor, 19; Interior Communications Electrician 3rd Class Natasha Huffman, 24; and Retail Services Specialist 3rd Class Mika'il Sharp, 23. The incidents ignited an outcry over the working and living conditions for crew aboard the Nimitz-class carrier, which has been at Newport News Shipyard for a protracted mid-life overhaul since 2017.

The report shows that while some sailors choose not to seek care for mental health concerns within the Navy system for fear that it will affect their ability to do their job, at least 2,600 mental health encounters have been reported aboard George Washington since January 2021. The level of demand for mental health care was high enough to overwhelm the two-man counseling team assigned to the vessel, and the wait time for a first appointment was up to 4-6 weeks for those who did seek help. 

“Based on the available evidence collected, there were no indications that RS3 Sharp, IC3 Huffman, or MASR Mitchell-Sandor had any social or working relationships with one another. Each Sailor was experiencing unique and individualized life stressors, which were contributing factors leading to their deaths,” said the report.

The first inquiry was tasked with finding any connections between the deceased. A second, broader investigation is currently examining issues with command climate, safety, habitability, manning, mental health, onboard residency during maintenance, yard safety, and disciplinary and administrative actions, among other factors. 

“The loss of these three sailors and the impact their deaths had on their shipmates, family and friends is nothing that can ever be measured. We can, however, investigate why they did what they did, learn from it, and use that information to prevent it from happening again. We owe that to every sailor to keep them physically and mentally safe,” said Adm. Daryl Caudle, Commander of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command.

The investigation established that RS3 Sharp’s decision to take his life was an impulsive one influenced by alcohol abuse. The work environment was not a contributing factor in his death.

The work environment was also ruled out on the case of IC3 Huffman whose suicide was attributed to a history of mental health challenges, which included previous suicide attempts and a history of self-harm, according to the inquiry report.

For MASR Mitchell-Sandor, the quality of life aboard George Washington was the main trigger, the investigators determined. While the working conditions were not the sole cause, they were major sources of stress.

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 discovery of additional repair requirements. The ship was supposed to be out by 2021 but is now expected to leave the shipyard next year.

The investigation, which has recommended that the Navy implement suicide prevention and mental health programs, comes when the Navy is grappling with a rising number of suicides involving its sailors. Navy statistics show that as of December 6, 63 active-duty sailors and seven in the reserves have died by suicide. Last year the number of suicides stood at 59 and 65 in 2020.

It also comes when the Navy is investigating a separate series of suicides in Norfolk, Virginia, where four sailors at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Medical Center died by suicide between late-October and late-November. The investigation is aimed at finding out if there were common circumstances between the deaths, as well as looking into each death on its own.