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Naval secretary visits USS George Washington after multiple crew suicides

Naval secretary visits USS George Washington after multiple crew suicides
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro visited the USS George Washington (pictured) Tuesday, in an effort to get a first-hand look at conditions on the under-repair aircraft carrier amid multiple suicides among crew members. File Phot by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo

May 18 (UPI) -- The Secretary of the Navy visited the USS George Washington in an effort to get a first-hand look at conditions aboard the Nimitz class aircraft carrier after a number of suicides among the crew, the Navy announced.

Secretary Carlos Del Toro was joined by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday while visiting the ship Tuesday, which has been docked at the Newport News Shipyard in Virginia since 2017, for a four-year Refueling and Complex Overhaul. Those repairs have been delayed because of the pandemic and aren't expected to be finished until December.

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Del Toro and Gilday made the trip "to hear from the crew firsthand about the challenges they are facing while the ship is in RCOH. We gathered unvarnished feedback & a number of recommendations to improve their quality of life," the Office of the Secretary of the Navy said on Twitter.

The 30-year-old ship has seen a number of recent suicides among its approximately 2,700 crew members. In late April, two sailors were found dead, and officials later confirmed the cause of death as suicide. Both were found at separate sites on shore.

At the time, three sailors on the ship told Military.com that its commander, Capt. Brent Gaut, announced that the deaths were the eighth and ninth suicides involving sailors from the ship in the previous nine months.

"Our goal today is very simple, we want to hear firsthand from everyone on board the challenges they are facing," Del Toro said in a statement.

"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."

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The Navy said the "circumstances surrounding these (deaths) incidents vary and some incidents remain under investigation."

Del Toro and Gilday stopped short of offering specific solutions.

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"There is no treatment or prevention if we can't openly speak about our struggles and stresses," Gilday said in a statement.

"When someone needs help, we must get them help without judgment or hesitancy."

Since April the Navy has implemented several short-term initiatives with the goal of improving mental health among the crew, including moving hundreds of sailors to off-ship accommodations. Since Thursday, "off-ship berthing accommodations were made for all sailors who lived onboard, with nearly 300 moving off the ship," the Navy said in a statement.

For months, crew members have described intolerable working conditions aboard the floating fortress. Sailors trained for ship operations, have often found themselves reduced to performing menial tasks and unrelated labor as the 1,092-foot carrier sits at the pier.

The Navy has also deployed a rapid deployable Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team to provide mental health assistance, and added a licensed clinical social worker to serve as a deployed resiliency counselor.

The ship now has an organic Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Team, made up sailors, equipped to act as first responders to any at-risk crew member.

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