Three more sailors stationed aboard Navy aircraft carriers undergoing refits have died by suicide in the past two months, with the latest death occurring on Monday.
Cmdr. Robert Myers, a Navy spokesman, confirmed that a sailor stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington died at a private residence in Newport News, Virginia, on Monday. A spokeswoman for the Newport News Police department told Military.com that they considered the death a suicide.
Military.com is not releasing the name of the sailor, because the Navy says family notification has not been completed.
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Meanwhile, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier undergoing a maintenance period at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state, lost Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Christopher Carroll on Jan. 18 and Electrician’s Mate (Nuclear) 3rd class Jacob Slocum on Dec. 5.
Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Anderson, a spokesman for the ship, confirmed the deaths to Military.com but said that both remain under investigation. The Kitsap County medical examiner’s office confirmed suicide was the cause of death for both sailors in a phone call with Military.com on Thursday.
The suicide aboard the George Washington comes just over a month after the Navy released its first report on the last three suicides the ship experienced in April. Military.com initially reported that sailors were told the ship had experienced 10 suicides in under a year by its commander, Capt. Brent Gaut.
Since then, the Navy has offered differing and lower figures, but it has never confirmed or denied what Gaut told his crew. The Navy also disclosed that a string of suicides on that ship goes back to at least November 2019.
One key aspect that connects the two carriers is the shipyard environment that they currently exist in — an environment that Navy leaders have repeatedly admitted is arduous and challenging.
Sailors lived aboard the George Washington from April 2021 until the suicides forced the Navy to move the crew off the ship at the end of last April. Following the suicides, it became clear that living conditions aboard the ship, with frequent outages of heat or ventilation, power and running water as well as constant construction noise and debris, were a key complaint for the crew.
The recently released Navy investigation found that sailors would resort to sleeping in their cars or paying for rent in town despite not having a housing allowance.
While an investigation into the three April suicides concluded that they had no direct connection to living conditions on the massive docked ship, which has been in the shipyard since 2017, that report also revealed a climate where leaders were oblivious to the problems of their sailors and a Navy whose efforts to offer mental health care were insufficient and rife with mistrust. As a result, sailors struggled all alone.
The Roosevelt, like the Washington, is undergoing a refit. The ship has been at the Puget Sound shipyard since August 2021, though Anderson noted that none of the ship’s roughly 2,700 sailors lives aboard the ship.
However, Slocum’s family told Military.com that conditions in the shipyard and an unsympathetic chain of command took a toll on the young sailor.
Elspeth Slocum, the sailor’s stepmother, said his long working hours led him to struggle to complete his qualifications, and as a result, his superiors sent him to captain’s mast — a form of non-judicial punishment where sailors are tried and punished by their commanding officer.
Elspeth said she spoke with her stepson a few days before the captain’s mast.
“He tried so hard that day to complete qualifications, searching for an officer willing to test him,” she told Military.com on Thursday, before adding that “he was unsuccessful.”
In another instance, Elspeth said her stepson told her he searched for an officer to help him with his qualifications for four hours.
Military.com asked Anderson about the captain’s mast and was told that “performance at work is being examined as part of an ongoing investigation into the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of … Jacob Slocum,” but that “further details cannot be provided at this time while the investigation is active.”
Elspeth said that the young sailor “broke down and requested a transfer” during the captain’s mast but was denied. In the end, according to his stepmother, Slocum was put “on restriction” for 40 days — typically a punishment that means the sailor cannot freely leave the ship. In an effort to cheer him up, she tried to send him his favorite tea in the mail.
“He never received them,” she said. “Weeks later, he died by his own hand.”
Anderson said that “caring for and strengthening a sailor’s mental and physical health and well-being — regardless of their job performance — is a sacred trust to all levels of leadership on USS Theodore Roosevelt.”
In response to the deaths of Slocum and Carroll, Anderson stressed that the ship has added additional resources — seven extra professionals — for sailors on top of the already assigned counselor, psychologist, enlisted behavioral health specialist and three chaplains.
“We remain fully engaged with our sailors and their families to ensure their health and well-being, and to ensure a climate of trust and transparency that encourages sailors to ask for help, ” Anderson said.
Myers told Military.com that “embedded chaplains, mental health providers, and leaders are engaged with the crew and are available to provide appropriate support and counseling” aboard the George Washington carrier.
“Several one-on-one engagements occurred following the announcement, and information with support resources was also distributed to the sailors in the department,” he added.
The Navy’s top leaders have recently begun to speak more openly and urgently about the service’s struggle with suicide prevention.
Adm. Michael Gilday, the Navy’s top officer, recently said that the issue keeps him up at night and that mental health is a “vexing problem” for the Navy.
“We have mental health facilities available,” he said. “We have resiliency teams on our [amphibious readiness groups] and our carrier strike groups, and yet it’s still not enough.”
In a conversation with reporters, Gilday said Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro “is very interested in the final investigation on [George Washington] that lays out in more detail what investments we should make to improve.”
— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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