The United States Navy has opened an investigation on the leadership climate and culture aboard the USS George Washington after seven sailors have been confirmed dead over the past 12 months, four of which are suspected of being suicide.
On April 11th, the commander of the aircraft carrier Captain Brent Gaut announced over the ship’s intercom that sailors should seek help when needed and that there are resources available to help them.
The announcement came after two sailors were found dead on April 9 and 10 because of suicide. Anonymous sailors who have heard Gaut’s announcement said that it is what “they say after they have a suicide every time.”
Four days later, another sailor was found unresponsive while onboard the carrier. The ship’s crew sent the sailor to the base hospital but unfortunately died there. The Navy has identified the most recent death as Master at Arms Seaman Recruit Xavier Hunter Mitchell-Sandor.
Mitchell-Sandor “was treated by the medical team on board before being transported to the Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News where the service member passed away,” the Navy said. They added that his death was an apparent suicide.
The Navy has also identified the two other deaths this April. Retail Services Specialist 3rd Class Mika’il Sharp died on April 9, and Interior Communications Electrician 3rd Class Natasha Huffman died on April 10. Again, both deaths were marked as suicides. Sharp died reportedly at an undisclosed location off-base in Hampton, Virginia, while Huffman was also found lifeless off base in Virginia.
The cases of Mitchell-Sandor, Sharp, and Huffman, are among 7 Navy personnel dispatched to the USS George Washington who have died in the last 12 months.
“We can confirm seven total deaths of service members assigned to USS George Washington over the past 12 months — 4 in 2021, and 3 in 2022. The circumstances surrounding these incidents vary, and it is premature to make assumptions, as some incidents remain under investigation,” Naval Air Force Atlantic spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Robert Myers said.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that investigations are still ongoing but added that they do not see any indications that the suicides were related. He also gave his condolences to the families of the fallen sailors.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families for those sailors who are now no longer in the ranks… These are now going to be families getting the worst possible news and dealing with unspeakable grief,” Kirby said.
Poor Living Conditions Aboard the USS George Washington
The USS George Washington has been undergoing an overhaul at Newport News, Virginia, since 2017. Maintenance for the Nimitz-class carriers like the George usually lasts for four years and is done after 25 years of service. This is done to conduct repairs, upgrades, and refuel the nuclear reactor that powers the massive vessel.
The ship was scheduled to finish its maintenance in 2021, but the pandemic and other disruptions pushed the date to 2022. This meant that the crew members who were not given housing allowance or lived off-board were forced to live on the carrier while it was being repaired at the port.
“They live in a construction zone,” one sailor said. “There’s grinding, needle gunning, there’s always problems with ventilation, there’s always problems with hot water.”
The other sailors recalled that the lack of ventilation would cause the ship’s floor to crackle during the winter months.
“It’s not like one big glaring problem, it’s just a bunch of small stuff that adds up and adds up and adds up, but it never goes away,” they added.
Addressing Rising Cases
Suicide rates in the military have gone up sharply over the past years. In 2020, 580 service members committed suicide, according to the Department of Defense. This year, 15 suicides among servicemembers have been recorded in the Navy alone. This does not include the three new cases this April, which brings the total to 18 before we even reach half the year.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has emphasized the need to address the rising cases of suicide in the military. Last month, the Department of Defense established the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee, which intends to monitor and reassess Pentagon programs to deal with suicides.
The Committee is scheduled to begin visiting military facilities in May and is set to produce an initial set of recommendations by the first quarter of 2023.
“One death by suicide is one too many,” Austin wrote in a memo announcing the formation of the Committee. “And suicide rates among our Service members are still too high. So, clearly, we have more work to do.”