Two of the Navy’s most powerful leaders visited beleaguered sailors aboard the USS George Washington, raising hopes for some that things will improve amid a wave of suicides and a crisis mental health, although the couple made no concrete promises.
Following several suicides among sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and Admiral Michael Gilday, the U.S. chief of naval operations, spent about four hours Tuesday visiting the George Washington and talking to crew members about living and working conditions.
Their visit comes after at least five sailors from the George Washington killed themselves last year, including three in the space of a week last month, military officials said.
It elicited a mixed reaction among sailors. Some were receptive, noting the couple’s high ranks within the chain of command.
“I believe things will change because the only people above these two men are the Secretary of Defense and the President. No one else,” said a sailor who works on the George Washington and asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
Others were less optimistic, particularly after a controversial speech by Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Russell Smith, the head of the enlisted service, a few weeks earlier.
In late April, Smith disagreed when a sailor said the standard of living on the ship was “not necessarily up to par”. He said sailors went home most nights and did not “sleep in a burrow like a Marine might,” according to a transcript of the address released by the Navy.
While Del Toro and Gilday did not deliver official speeches on Tuesday, the secretary told sailors through the ship’s public address system that they were listening.
“They promised a certain amount of change, but didn’t give a lot of details,” said Jack Lepien, a marine mass communication specialist, whose last day with the Navy was Tuesday.
“Hopefully that will make things better,” he added. “But the general feeling is still that nothing is going to change.”
The warship has been undergoing extensive repairs at Newport News Naval Shipyard in Virginia since 2017. The Navy said repairs likely won’t be complete until March.
Several current and former George Washington sailors told NBC News that their struggles are directly linked to a culture where seeking help is not met with the necessary resources, as well as near uninhabitable living conditions on board. of the ship, including constant construction noise that made sleeping impossible and a lack of hot water and electricity.
They also said that when a ship undergoes lengthy overhauls, most young crew members are relegated to cleaning and repair duties rather than the duties they enlisted in the navy for.
Del Toro and Gilday said their goal was to hear first-hand about the challenges sailors may face as the ship continues to undergo a delayed overhaul period.
“We want to make sure no one else feels like their only option is to take their own life,” Del Toro said in a press release.
The secretary said he and Gilday were ready to do more to support the sailors, but neither described concrete steps as to how they would improve conditions and culture on the carrier.
A senior Navy official told NBC News on Wednesday that there were “several things underway to include deeper dives into some of the issues” and that recommendations would be developed and implemented “as soon as possible.”
During Tuesday’s visit, Del Toro met with the ship’s senior management and medical team and held group discussions with crew members, while Gilday toured the ship and spoke with sailors.
“We all know it’s tough and we want to improve it,” Del Toro said.
Most of the approximately 2,700 sailors on the George Washington return home after their shifts, but about 400 who live out of state or have no offsite accommodation resided on board.
Since the three April suicides, the Navy has offered to transfer these sailors to nearby military housing. On Friday, the Navy said more than 280 sailors had taken up the offer, as it worked to secure additional accommodations for the rest of the crew.
“We want feedback and recommendations from the crew so we can continue to take immediate action to improve their quality of life and the availability of mental health care services,” Del Toro said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741, or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.