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Navy allows sailors to move off USS George Washington after multiple suicides

More than 200 sailors on the USS George Washington took the opportunity Monday to move off the ship to accommodations at a local installation. The move is part of the Navy's response to support the crew who lost three shipmates to suicide within one week in April

In total, about 400 sailors are assigned bunks on the ship, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Atlantic Rear Admiral John Meier, told reporters Tuesday. The Navy has made accommodations for 260 of the 400 to move off the ship so far, and is working to accommodate all who want to live off the ship.

The USS George Washington is also making plans for a two-day stand down to discuss mental health and the quality of life on the ship, Meier said.

In describing what he called "an operational pause," Meier said, "I'm a little bit less concerned or a lot less concerned right now about schedule and ship's force work. And I'm much more concerned about the mental health of the crew, the workload on the crew, and how we move forward with that."

The USS George Washington has been docked at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia since 2017 for a multi-year overhaul that in the long-term will keep the aircraft carrier serviceable for years to come, but in the short term has effectively turned the ship into a construction zone. 

The estimated completion of the overhaul for the George Washington has slid to March 2023, which means that it will be roughly two years between when sailors moved aboard in April 2021 and the expected delivery date — which Meier said in hindsight is "probably a year too long" for the sailors to have been on the ship.  

While the ship is undergoing the overhaul, a certain number of sailors are required aboard in order to provide ship security, run essential equipment, and maintain fire and flood watches. 

The Navy's top enlisted leader played down the conditions when he visited the aircraft carrier at the end of April. During the visit, according to audio obtained by CBS News, a sailor raised the concern of subpar conditions on the ship, and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith told him the Navy could've done a better job managing sailors' expectations coming in. 

"I hear your concerns and you should always raise them but you have to do so with reasonable expectations and then understanding what…what this is like," Smith said. "What you're not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a marine might be doing." 

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington leaves the US naval base in Yokosuka, 60 kms south of Tokyo, for the last time for refueling and complex overhaul on May 18, 2015.  TORU YAMANAKA/AFP via Getty Images

CBS News reported last week that in total, seven sailors have died by suicide since the ship entered overhaul in 2017. In addition to the three recent suicides in April, sailors assigned to the George Washington died by suicide in December 2021, October 2020, July 2020, and November 2019. 

It is not clear why the sailors died by suicide, but the Navy has launched an investigation into the recent deaths of sailors assigned to the carrier. The investigation will include command climate and culture issues, and the systemic relationships between them, according to the Navy. 

In addition, the Navy is forming a team to assess the conditions for aircraft carriers undergoing maintenance, and their recommendations will go towards improving quality of life on all carriers. 

The USS George Washington is not the only carrier that has experienced suicides while going through an overhaul. In 2019, the USS George HW Bush lost four shipmates to suicide during its years-long overhaul in Norfolk, Virginia. 

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.  

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