Over a recent 7-day period, three sailors stationed aboard the USS George Washington (CVN-73) — my former ship — took their own lives, bringing the so-called “GDUB’s” total reported body count in the past 10 months to a lamentable 10 souls. It’s no wonder the command is colloquially termed “cell block 73.”
The incidents recently drew the presence of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON), the Navy’s highest-ranking enlisted member who works directly with the Chief of Naval Operations. The MCPON, however, wryly admitted that he was there on a visit to the neighboring USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), and so he figured he’d “drop by.” This quip did not go over well with the crew.
When the MCPON took questions, a corpsman asked him if there were any resources that the Navy could extend to the ship’s junior sailors who live each day in the grueling, filthy, and isolated shipyard environment, in light of the recent traumatic deaths of their shipmates. The MCPON compared being in the shipyard to being in a foxhole during wartime, as in the Marines or Army, and said the service should have managed sailors’ expectations better upon reporting to the Geroge Washington. Across the fleet, but especially in the shipyards, the living conditions of sailors are extremely problematic. For example, some berthing areas lack hot water and have poor ventilation. The MCPON’s apparent callousness caused a first-class petty officer to remark, “nothing like the MCPON stopping by an aircraft carrier with the highest suicide rate just to tell his sailors to lower their expectations.”
While hundreds of sailors have since been moved off the ship, the question we must now pose is, why did this happen? Surely a nut or bolt in a machine may break from time to time, but where are we to place the blame? What is the root cause of the issue? Perhaps the bolt was faulty, or perhaps the machine exerted too much force on its constituent parts, causing the bolt to fracture.
These are not easy questions, but, if I may relay a few sea stories, some light from this crusty sailor may be shed on the issue:
“What the fuck do you want?” my watch commander barked, as I entered the Ship’s Security Dispatch.
“MA2 [Master-at-arms Second Class] I just got off watch, completed a rove, and was looking to get some training on a qualification that I’m working on.”
After staring coldly back at me for a moment he sneered, “MA3 [Master-at-arms Third Class], you’re just getting qualifications to make rank. You don’t really give a shit about them. Get the fuck outta here.”
I turned and left the office, shaking my head in dismay at the shitty day I’d been having. My morning had begun in the usual way: I woke up at 2:30 AM, listened to the watch commander howl at us during guard mount, him letting us know, “y’all better not fuck up today or life ain’t gonna be fun.”
Later on, after having briefly removed my mask to take a sip of water — Covid-19 protocols demanded that a ship’s crew be fully masked at all times except when eating or drinking — a senior chief stormed up to me and bellowed, “what the fuck are you doing, shipmate?”
“My apologies, senior, I was just about to take a sip of water.”
He immediately followed up with, “who is your watch commander?”
The call came over my radio not even five minutes later.
“Watch Commander to MA3.”
“Go ahead, Watch Commander.”
“Report to dispatch immediately.”
The story is, as you’d expect, one of reprimand — but I’ve been ‘chewed-out’ before, so no big deal, right? Wrong. It was later in the day that I learned of the hypocrisy of the senior chief who, with much zeal, had reported me. He, according to several sailors in his shop, spent his time during cleaning stations when all hands needed to tidy the ship — except for chiefs and officers since they’re apparently above taking out the trash — yelling at anyone he could find who had their mask off before returning to his shop, plopping down in his overpriced $1,700 chair, and ripping his own mask off in front of everyone and sipping his cup of joe.
How far-reaching is such disrespect and carelessness? Remember Capt. Crozier, naval aviator, commanding officer of nuclear carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, and hero to many a junior sailor, who was ousted from his position after speaking out to Washington brass? Amid a major Covid-19 outbreak on the ship during the early days of the pandemic he had warned top leaders that, “we are not at war,” and didn’t want to risk sailors’ lives needlessly. Instead of the carrier continuing on with its deployment, he suggested the ship port in Guam until the number of cases onboard dropped significantly.
However, the well-being of the ship’s company was not important to Washington. Crozier was fired, but he did enjoy the full support of his crew, having been cheered off the ship with the utmost pomp and ceremony. Less than a week later, Thomas Modly, then-Secretary of the Navy, took a private jet to Guam where he cursed out the entire crew over the ship-wide intercom, effectively saying they were being wimps and calling their former captain “stupid,” only to resign shortly thereafter because his polemic was surreptitiously recorded by a crew member and sent to media outlets.
For years, from top to bottom, the U.S. Navy has been mired in a crisis of leadership, which, time and again, has reminded me of the words of retired Navy SEAL, Vietnam veteran, and Medal of Honor Recipient Mike Thornton: “Take care of your people and your people will take care of you.” This simple but powerful principle, if truly followed by naval leadership, would drastically increase combat effectiveness. It is much to the dismay of sailors that mental health awareness is such a low priority in today’s Navy. Even though suicide prevention training is regularly conducted, they rarely affect how seniors treat subordinates. Yet this is, I believe, the essence of the problem.
It should then come as no surprise that despite such efforts on the Navy’s part, getting help for one’s mental health is unintentionally discouraged. Sailors fear losing their job, being sent to non-judicial punishment (NJP) for something associated with their poor mental health, being sentenced to restriction (jail for those who get NJP’d), and having their rank and pay reduced.
The Navy is obsessed with tradition to the point where it reduces critical issues — structural leadership problems — to mere par-for-the-course antics. Throughout the fleet, sailors report they are overworked since there’s never enough time, equipment, or people to get the job done. This reality is often apparent in the look of ships, which have been rusting away due to a lack of maintenance. It’s no wonder that Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater (despite the myriad problems associated with his former security company), has railed so heavily against conventional military methodologies, claiming that their efficiency is often hampered by poor leadership. But let’s look on the bright side, the crew of the USS George Washington can at least be proud of winning something! In 2020, an informal bracket-style polling competition was conducted on Instagram where the ‘worst’ commands were ranked. Who came out on top? Good ol’ “cell block 73.”
The deaths of my fellow shipmates make the words of the 19th-century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, seem appropriate and relatable. When pondering the rise of atheism in Europe, Nietsche wrote a parable about what he called the death of God. I’d like to modify the words to conclude by giving them a maritime twist:
Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying our mariners? Do we smell nothing as yet of the nautical decomposition? The armada, too, decomposes. Our sailors are dead. Our sailors remain dead. And we have killed them.
Editor’s Note: If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.
Julien Napoli is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is currently a student studying political science and environmental science at Columbia University in New York City.
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