The Navy acknowledged last week that it could have done a better job preparing Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington for lengthy service while in drydock, but said seeing the ship through this process is part of their job.
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith addressed Sailors from the George Washington last week, as Navy officials investigate the death of seven Sailors linked to that ship, including at least four suicides. Smith seemed to acknowledge that the nature of serving on a ship that is not fully functional for long periods of time could be a factor in these deaths.
“It’s not easy for Sailors,” he said according to a recording of his remarks obtained by Navy Times. “This isn’t the thing we advertise generally with Navy recruiting to come to this, or this part of the life of a ship.”
Smith recalled his own time in drydock, which he said can involve walking the length of the ship to find a working head or hot water. “The downside is some of the shit that you have to go through logistically will drive you crazy,” Smith said.
But Smith told Sailors there was little else to do but carry on even in the face of substandard living conditions and inconvenient access to the ship through a suboptimal neighborhood.
“I think we probably could have done better to manage your expectations coming in here,” he said. “Legally and from a safety perspective, you have to at times have a certain percentage of the crew that’s on board the ship.”
Smith agreed that the parking situation for Sailors “sucks,” but encouraged Sailors to see the situation as something better than what they might be facing out in the field.
“I hear your concerns and you should always raise them, but you have to do so with reasonable expectations and an understanding of what this is like,” Smith said. “What you’re not doing is sleeping in a foxhole, like what a Marine might be doing.”
“No one’s telling Marines out in the field or a SEAL that’s on a boat on a river, ‘Hey I’m going to get you that hot meal tonight.’ Sometimes you’re going to have to live through it.”
Smith stressed a few times that Sailors need to own the process of maintaining their ships, which means they need to play a role in the drydock process.
“To do that, the conditions are not always great,” he said. “When someone walks by you in Starbucks and you’re in uniform and says, ‘Thank you for your service,’ this is one of the things they’re thanking you for.”
“But to turn around and get a carrier another 20 to 25 years of service life… we rely on Sailors that have that kind of ownership,” he added. “Thank you for what you’re doing, it means a lot. The defense that you’re giving back to the nation in a ship that’s going to be ready to go for another two decades-plus is more than we could have asked of you and we appreciate that.”
“The only difference between Sailors on a carrier and Sailors at SEAL Team 4 is the attitude between them as teammates, because we both have shitty jobs,” Smith said. “There’s no difference between that and being with a SEAL platoon in Colombia, hunkered off the side of a river in knee-deep mud…doing real shitty work, they’re both hard to do.”
Smith took several questions from Sailors at the event, including whether Sailors would have more access to mental health care services. But Smith indicated additional help would be hard to come by.
“Like I said, we hired a bunch of new people,” Smith said. “But the problem is the nation doesn’t have a whole lot of psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health care workers out there in abundance.”
Smith did acknowledge the problems related to the USS George Washington by noting it’s a problem the Navy is working to investigate.
“When I tell you that suicides by percentage across the Navy have actually gone down this year… does it matter if locally that’s not your experience because of what you’re dealing with here? It doesn’t,” he said. “So I’m not going to tell you about the Navy. I’m going to tell you that I understand that we saw the problem, and the Navy has been focusing on it.”
When a Sailor raised the idea of building up local drydock facilities in Newport News, Virginia to improve Sailors’ lives, Smith indicated this would be difficult to do.
“Who’s going to build coffee shops and Internet cafes restaurants and who’s going to buy the land and convince these franchises to come in and build that stuff?” he asked. When it comes to on-base renovation, Smith said other more important priorities have also yet to be taken care of.
When one Sailor asked if the Navy did the right thing by requiring masks and vaccines to fight COVID, Smith explained that COVID had little effect on a majority of the population, but that 1 or 2 percent were going to have to “fight for their lives to make it.”
“What we did was necessary, and now that you see us not wearing masks, it’s because the vaccine has relegated that to not being necessary,” he said.
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