A Navy investigation prompted by a spate of suicides is recommending widespread improvements in housing, food, parking and internet for sailors as well as changes to mental health and other personnel programs. The much-anticipated report lays out a sweeping condemnation of living and working conditions at naval shipyards that had languished for years but were brought to light by the deaths.
“We let our people down.” Navy leaders said in response to the findings.
The inquiry concluded that several suicides at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia last year were not connected or caused by any one issue. But the deaths underscored pervasive problems and poor living conditions, particularly among young enlisted sailors doing long-term ship maintenance at that base and others around the United States.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a trained listener, call 988. Service members and veterans can call 988 and then press “1”. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.org
That review recommended improvements to the system that puts sailors into limited duty slots when they are unable to perform their regular jobs due to issues ranging from injuries and pregnancy to mental heath and other problems. It also called for expanded mental health care and increased staffing, which are similar quality of work and life concerns reflected in the shipyard report. In their memo, Del Toro and Gilday outlined needed changes in limited duty assignments as part of the broader effort to improve sailors’ quality of service.
“Every sailor unable to perform normally assigned duties deserves full, direct support,” said Del Toro and Gilday, adding that sailors must be assigned “in the right numbers, to the right commands, with access to the right resources.”
The Navy said it has requested $258 million in the 2024 budget for housing, parking garages and recreation facilities. Other changes, including pay and additional personnel for counseling and health care, could take years to get congressional approval and funding.
The shipyard report dug deeply into sailors’ work and living conditions when they are assigned to a ship that is undergoing major overhaul or maintenance in a Navy shipyard. The George Washington, for example, was brought to Newport News for a four-year overhaul that includes refueling the nuclear reactors and other intensive repair work.
In one case, a young sailor who later died by suicide had been sleeping in his car due to noise on the ship. The investigation noted that he was counseled on the matter, but there was no evidence of any follow-through by leadership. In other cases, sailors complained that lack of nearby parking and the difficult commute were adding hours to their days. Depending on the location, sailors could face a three-hour commute from the time they left home, drove to the parking lot, took the shuttle bus and then walked the final stretch to the ship.
“We definitely want a sailor who joined the Navy to go to sea, to get that opportunity to see the ocean, get into a port call, experience why that person joined, and not spend that entire tour in a maintenance facility where the ship’s being repaired,” Caudle said.
Del Toro and Gilday said shipyard assignments are essential but should not consume a young sailor’s early years. They endorsed recommendations allowing sailors to seek other jobs after one year, and limiting shipyard duty to two years.
Asked if anyone was disciplined as a result of the problems, Caudle said no one person was liable. Instead, Navy leadership was accountable and must ensure no other ships endure the problems the George Washington had.