More than 200 sailors have moved off the USS George Washington aircraft carrier after multiple deaths by suicide among the crew, including three in less than one week in April, according to the Navy.
The sailors are moving to a local Navy installation as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier continues to go through a years-long refueling and overhaul process at the shipyard in Newport News in Virginia. Over the past 12 months, seven members of the crew have died, including four by suicide, prompting the Navy to open an investigation into the command climate and culture on board the Nimitz-class carrier.
The commanding officer of the carrier, Capt. Brent Gaut, made the decision to allow sailors living on board the ship to move to other accommodations, according to a statement from Naval Air Force Atlantic. On the first day of the move, which began Monday, more than 200 sailors left the carrier and moved to a nearby Navy facility.
“The move plan will continue until all Sailors who wish to move off-ship have done so,” the statement said. Although the carrier does not have its full complement of approximately 5,000 sailors, the ship still has about 2,700 sailors working aboard during the overhaul process. About 420 sailors live on board the ship during its overhaul.
The ship’s command is working to identify sailors who could “benefit from and desire the support services and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs” that are available on local Navy facilities. The Navy is in the process of setting up “temporary accommodations” for these sailors, according to an earlier statement from Naval Air Force Atlantic.
“Leadership is actively implementing these and pursuing a number of additional morale and personal well-being measures and support services to members assigned to USS George Washington.”
Results from the Navy’s investigation into the deaths are expected this week, Admiral John Meier, the commander of US Naval Air Force Atlantic, told reporters during a media roundtable on Tuesday.
“We’ve assigned an investigating officer to look into that and to really to look into the proximate cause. Was there an immediate trigger? Was there a linkage between those events? I expect that to report out this week, and I won’t presuppose the outcome of that report,” Meier said.
The investigation is one of two the US Navy is conducting. The second investigation has a “much broader scope” and focuses on “command climate, command culture,” Meier said.
To respond to the three suicides in April, the Navy added resources to the ship, including a “ship psychologist,” “resiliency counselors,” and “a 13-person sprint team, which is a special intervention team for instances like this,” Meier said.
The sprint team was “on board for a whole week, and they put out a report that identified some things to add to our investigative work,” Meier added.
The deaths aboard the carrier prompted Rep. Elaine Luria, a 20-year Navy veteran whose district encompasses multiple military facilities, to write a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, demanding immediate action to ensure the safety of the crew.
“Each of these deaths is a tragedy, and the number of incidents within a single command, which includes as many as four sailors taking their own lives, raises significant concern that requires immediate and stringent inquiry,” Luria wrote last week, noting that her office has received complaints about the quality of life aboard the ship and a toxic atmosphere.
Editor’s Note: If you or a loved one have contemplated suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the number of sailors living aboard the ship during its refueling and overhaul process. About 420 sailors live on board.