Amid 7th Fleet Turmoil, Sailors Open Up About The Navy’s Silent Threat: Sleep Deprivation

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“I don't think I can remember not being completely exhausted on watch, be it the middle of the day or the seven-to-forever,” says August Sorvillo, a former Navy quartermaster who helped his ships navigate all manners of challenging channels and anchorages. “It's safe to say I've bought enough Red Bull, Monster, and Rip-Its that I could [have made] a sizable down payment on a house.”


Lori Schulze Buresh, a former surface warfare officer, still cringes thinking about the deployment where she stood the Navy’s notorious “five and dime” watches: five hours on, 10 off, then repeat — no matter what time of day or night. “The hardest part is being awake at some point every night and still doing a job all day,” she says. “It is hard on a body and hard on the mind.”

After four different groundings and collisions in less than a year in its Japan-based 7th Fleet — including the crashes of the advanced guided-missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain this summer, leaving 17 sailors dead or missing — the Navy is cleaning house and doing some soul-searching. But beyond the particulars of each incident, service officials are intent on identifying broader issues that may leave crews more prone to deadly accidents.

Many current and former sailors have a suggestion for the Navy: Let your crews sleep more.

It’s not a new refrain: Sleep deprivation, long a fixture in all the military services, is accepted by most sailors as a way of life, made slightly more bearable by strong coffee, midrats, and SWOnuts. In the naval service, “Sleep when you’re dead” is the unwritten 11th general order.

‘Watch rotations… aren’t conducive to sleep’

But science shows that this hard-charging ethos can yield a fleet of well-trained watchstanding zombies. In a 2012 military study, 39% of sailors reported that they were “frequently not getting enough restful sleep to function well at work and in their personal lives.” Previous studies have suggested that surface sailors lose out on five to nine hours of sleep every week they’re underway.

In 2015, the RAND Corporation published a two-year survey on sleep in the military, and the findings were dire. It showed “a high prevalence of insufficient sleep duration, poor sleep quality, daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and nightmares” across the military — particularly in the fleet.

RELATED: The Fitzgerald’s Watch Team Could Have Been Mine »

RAND found that out of all military communities, the Navy alone had one significant red flag: Sailors “with prior deployments had greater sleep-related daytime impairment than those without a prior deployment.” This is especially problematic for surface ships, which lean heavily on mid-level officers and petty officers with prior underway experience to conduct bridge and combat information center watches that are critical to safe navigation.

“We have environments in the Navy and the Marine Corps that aren’t conducive to sleep, watch rotations that aren’t conducive to sleep, and people don’t always pay a whole lot of attention to that,” one sailor told the RAND researchers.

Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad Runge

A first-year midshipman, or plebe, rests after participating in the ground combat portion U.S. Naval Academy’s annual Sea Trials.

‘I have seen and heard things that weren’t there’

The problem is significant enough that when one sailor responded to the McCain collision by sharing her daily work schedule and sleep problems on Reddit this week, the thread exploded with hundreds of commiserating comments from vets of the surface, sub, and naval air communities.

“I averaged 3 hours of sleep a night” on a destroyer and cruiser, the sailor wrote:

I have personally gone without sleep for so long that I have seen and heard things that weren't there. I've witnessed accidents that could have been avoided because the person was so tired they had no right to be operating heavy machinery, including an incident in which someone got descalped and someone else almost losing a finger.

The responses, from veterans and civilians, were wrenching. “I work for an airline,” one commenter said. “If we operated on this schedule they would [shut] us down so fast we couldn't even look.”

Setting the ‘circadian watchbill’

The Navy knows sleep deprivation is a perpetual problem in its ranks. “Fatigue has measurable negative effects on readiness, effectiveness and safety,” Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Force—Pacific, said in a fleet-wide message in 2016. “After a day without sleep, human performance drops to dangerously ineffective levels.”

Rowden and other senior Navy leaders have been taking pointers on keeping a ship’s crew well-rested from a “Crew Endurance Team” of military and civilian experts at the Naval Postgraduate School. Their suggestions include setting a “circadian watchbill” — organizing watches to conform to a 24-hour rotation, more in line with the human body’s natural sleep rhythms.

Asked whether any of 7th Fleet’s mishaps could be directly attributable to sleep and fatigue issues, the sailors are more circumspect. For one thing, there are no easy fixes; for another, everyone’s really busy and tired most of the time.

“It’s a factor, but it’s always been a factor,” one former surface officer told Task & Purpose. “But you’ve got to have watches.”

Navy

‘The practice briefing for the pre-briefing’

The officer says that sleep deprivation may be less of a cause than a symptom of bloat in sailors’ responsibilities, including arcane online training requirements (also a target of Secretary of Defense James Mattis), collateral duties, and a host of chores you don’t have to do, but should, like “the practice briefing for the pre-briefing, because the XO didn’t think we were ready [to brief the CO] yet.”

“The focus on collateral duties in our modern Navy [owns] part of the blame for a lot of missed days of sleep,” Sorvillo, the enlisted navigator, says. “On my last ship I, as well as quite a few others, had at least two full time duties to perform before going on watch... Eighteen to twenty hour days was the norm for six to eight months.”

Regardless of whether sleepy sailors can keep it together for a successful bridge watch, the Navy’s grueling schedules may wreck their crews even after getting out of uniform: Research suggests that fatigue problems, once programmed into a service member’s biology, can follow them for life. “[O]nce initiated, sleep disturbances may follow a persistent course, lasting for years after deployment,” RAND’s study concluded. The authors added that “sleep problems are prevalent, debilitating, and persistent in servicemember populations in the post-deployment period.”

That’s no news to Sorvillo. “I've been diagnosed with chronic insomnia,” he told Task & Purpose.

Despite leaving the fleet in 2009, he says, “I still get at most four hours of sleep a night.”

Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac
(Photo: CNN/screenshot)

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.

Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."

Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.

Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.

Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.

"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."

Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.

Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.

"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.

Photo: Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.

Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.

Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.

When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."

Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.

Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.

Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.

"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.

"Yes," Graffam said.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexi Myrick)

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