Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Deaths Aboard Docked USN Ships Continue Worrying Trend

 In early February, the US Navy confirmed that another sailor stationed on the USS George Washington (CVN 73) had died by suicide in January 2023. This comes nearly a year after three other sailors assigned to the nuclear carrier died by suicide in one week in April 2022. USS George Washington has been undergoing extensive repairs in Newport News since 2017. 

Last month's death adds to a worrying trend of dockyard suicides; according to local news, it was the eighth death by suicide of naval personnel in the last ten months in the Hampton Roads region, which hosts some of the Navy's most significant repair and refit facilities. Anonymous sailors stationed there have reported a culture that discourages seeking help for stress caused by "nearly uninhabitable" living conditions aboard refitting vessels, where overnight construction next to living quarters can make sleep impossible. The Navy has since attempted to move sailors into shore housing, but many sailors remain skeptical that broader cultural issues will be solved. 

These suicides and the systemic problems they imply bring to mind the investigations into the collision incidents involving the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain, which revealed high levels of crew burnout. While the George Washington is undergoing years of refit with no combat rather than the Fitzgerald's experience of repeated missions without badly needed repairs, both cases seem to display a need to think more seriously about human capital in the Navy, especially as other services potentially face long-term recruitment and retention challenges. 

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