(CNN) — The commanding officer stood in front of Sailors from the USS George Washington’s security team. One of them, Xavier Sandor, had taken his own life a few weeks earlier in mid-April and the captain had come down to speak to the 110 or so young men and women who worked closely with him.
The conversation with Captain Brent Gaut lasted two hours, according to four sailors present who spoke to CNN. In it, Gaut confirmed what the sailors had been feeling for months. He said the crew returned to the aircraft carrier too early, the sailors recalled, but it was too late to return.
Another seaman told CNN Gaut he spoke over the shipwide loudspeaker system, known as 1MC or 1 Main Circuit, about two months ago and said the ship, which had undergone major maintenance, was not ready for seafarers to could board when the process began last summer. But he said, ‘There’s no turning back now. We cannot reverse course.”
CNN has reached out to the Navy for comment on Gaut’s comments.
The situation on the aircraft carrier drew national attention when three sailors died by suicide in a week last month. But 12 current and former crew members of the George Washington who spoke to CNN painted a troubling picture of a ship with a myriad of problems, including what many described as terrible accommodation standards on the ship that was practically a construction site, concerns about the quality of the food and the feeling that the leadership does not tackle the problems and dismisses complaints.
But they weren’t the only fatalities on the carrier, as it remained docked at the Newport News shipyard. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has been undergoing its mid-life refueling and overhaul process since the summer of 2017. The trial, originally set to last four years, has been delayed multiple times until at least March 2023, the Navy said.
The sailors who agreed to speak to CNN all said the ship was uninhabitable. Sailors began moving aboard the carrier about a year ago, after the ship had already been in the refueling and overhaul process for four years and should be ready to receive parts of the crew. Even after years of work to prepare the carrier for its next mission, the ship remained a 24/7 construction site. The challenges of life on board often hit the youngest sailors hardest.
“I was ready for a shitty situation, but I had no idea it was going to be in the shipyards,” a Sailor currently assigned to the George Washington told CNN. Most of the Sailors spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of the repercussions if they discussed their own naval careers or those of their friends.
In the past 12 months, the crew of the USS George Washington have suffered seven deaths, at least four of which were suicides, the Navy said. Xavier Sandor, who worked on board the ship for security, took his own life on April 15, the third suicide in a week among the crew, according to those who knew him.
Sandor’s father, John Sandor, said his son was proud to enlist in the Navy right out of high school and follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. But Xavier once told his father the conditions on the ship were “terrible”.
“How do you sleep on an aircraft carrier with Jack Hammer and smoke and smells during the day?” asked John Sandor, demanding an explanation. “He would sleep in his car. In these conditions, no seaman should have lived on this ship.”
The suicides are becoming a tragic reality for the airline, seafarers told CNN, rather than an aberration. “I wasn’t surprised. Unfortunately, having been on the ship for so long, I’ve gotten used to it,” said a second deckhand on the George Washington. “I’ve seen it, it’s nothing new.”
It was almost impossible to find a quiet place to sleep aboard the ship, the sailors said, and the ship suffered from constant power outages and hot water. The berths often lacked ventilation, they said, and the ship’s massive metal structure amplified the outside temperature to the point of becoming unbearable.
“I woke up in the middle of the night and froze my ass off,” another sailor told CNN. “I lived in my car during the winter and I still found it better than my berth.” The sailor, who says he was 19 at the time, was shocked by the conditions on the ship, far from what he had expected of life in the Navy. He lived in his car off and on for about 3 weeks, he says, until he got used to the confines of the van.
“It’s way down,” he told CNN, speaking about the situation on the USS George Washington.
The crew left the ship
Earlier this week, the ship’s commander announced that about half of the more than 400 crew members living aboard the carrier would be relocating to temporary accommodation off the ship. Others who wished to do the same would also be given the opportunity. The sailors who spoke to CNN all agreed it was the right thing to do.
When asked if the Navy was aware that crew members were sleeping in their cars instead of on the ship, a spokesman for the US Naval Air Force Atlantic said that each seaman “will be provided with the means of accommodation” and the Navy will look into it whether housing is a factor in suicides.
“Navy and Congressional leadership have met extensively with the current leadership aboard the USS George Washington and are confident that the leadership team is working hard – on and off its lifelines – to take care of the crew,” said Commander Robert Myers in a statement to CNN. “Our current focus is to ensure we provide a safe and healthy environment for our seafarers on board GW and that the management team on board has the necessary resources.”
A sailor shared messages with CNN from the ship’s digital suggestion box, where people could report problems or share ideas. Many of the posts were categorized as “quality of life” and focused on issues such as distant parking, poor morals or food. But rarely has anything changed, the sailors said.
“The complaints will do nothing. You just have to suffer in silence,” said a fourth Sailor assigned to the ship.
Even a full meal was sometimes hard to come by, several seafarers told CNN.
“They just ran out of food and if they had anything left it would be – if you’re lucky – a little cereal or a little chicken thigh, which may or may not be undercooked,” said the fourth seaman, who worked often night security shifts.
“Prisoners got better food than we did in the military,” said a Sailor recently detached from the USS George Washington. The stretcher was her first assignment, and she says the living conditions gave her at times a drinking problem.
“It’s the craziest environment I’ve ever had to experience,” she said.
Two weeks ago, the Navy’s Master Chief Petty Officer Russell Smith, the service’s top seaman, visited the George Washington and spoke to the crew. In a statement released afterwards, he said his visit to the ship was an “open and honest dialogue” in which he wanted to “learn about the difficulties our seafarers are facing” and “understand their concerns”.
But when he told seafarers to have “reasonable expectations” and that they would not “sleep in a foxhole like a Marine might do,” some crew members were stunned. The ship’s fourth seaman called it “ridiculous, insulting speech.”
“That’s no reason why we live the way we live,” said the second seaman. “Something can be done to fix what we are going through.”
Another former seaman assigned to the George Washington called the situation on board “unacceptable,” particularly given the resources the military has at its disposal to improve living conditions and the quality of life.
“This is not Afghanistan where you expect these circumstances,” he said. “This is Newport News, Virginia.”
After the recent suicides, the Navy launched two investigations. The first, which is expected to be completed soon, looks specifically at the recent deaths on board the ship. The second, more comprehensive investigation will examine the command climate and culture at the Newport News shipyard, including issues of housing, parking and quality of life.
The Navy is “confident that our comprehensive investigation and assessment of the climate of command and various quality of life issues will identify areas for future improvement and provide recommendations for immediate action,” said Commander Myers.
US Naval Air Force Atlantic commander Admiral John Meier said the ship also added other mental health resources, such as a dedicated intervention team and an additional psychologist. Crew members aboard the USS George Washington also have access to elemental health resources and onboard training for junior sailors.
The increase in mental health resources is long overdue, according to the seafarers who spoke to CNN. Although the ship had a clinical psychologist, the sailors said they had to wait months for an appointment.
When Jacob Grella, who spent most of his time in the Navy and was assigned to George Washington, found out he was assigned to the airline, which was a short drive from his family in Richmond, Virginia, he said on Facebook that he “So damn happy.” But it wasn’t long before his occasional weekend trips home became an opportunity to escape the ship.
Grella said he tried to arrange a visit with the ship’s psychologist during his final year on the ship.
When he did, he was given “a six-month wait,” at which point “I was almost out of the Navy.”
Despite his frustration, Grella and many other sailors who spoke to CNN believed that a profound change in the ship’s culture and climate was achievable.
“I think that’s definitely possible,” he said, “but for that to happen, I think there has to be accountability for everyone at this point. You have to start looking at what is causing the backlash and who is causing this negative treatment and the way these poor kids think.
Editor’s Note: If you or a loved one have had thoughts about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.
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