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The USS George Washington. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith, the service’s top enlisted leader, told House lawmakers Wednesday, May 18, 2022, that it takes five weeks for sailors struggling with thoughts of suicide to get a mental health appointment. Smith’s comments come as the Navy copes with the suicides of seven sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier, which has been in Newport News, Va., for an overhaul since 2019.

The USS George Washington. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith, the service’s top enlisted leader, told House lawmakers Wednesday, May 18, 2022, that it takes five weeks for sailors struggling with thoughts of suicide to get a mental health appointment. Smith’s comments come as the Navy copes with the suicides of seven sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier, which has been in Newport News, Va., for an overhaul since 2019. (Matt Hildreth/TNS)

WASHINGTON — It takes more than a month for sailors struggling with thoughts of suicide to get a mental health appointment, the Navy’s top enlisted leader told House lawmakers Wednesday.

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith was speaking from experience when he addressed the issue during a subpanel hearing of the House Appropriations Committee.

“For those who are on the precipice of suicide, appointment times average five weeks,” Smith told members of the subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs and related agencies. “I can personally attest to this as I sought care last year and we had to use a private provider at my own expense – something our sailors should never have to endure.”

Smith did not elaborate on his personal experience, but he said the coronavirus “pandemic exacerbated an already critical need for greater mental health care capacity.”

Smith’s comments come as the Navy copes with the suicides of seven sailors assigned to the USS George Washington. All the sailors took their own lives since 2019 when the aircraft carrier began an overhaul in Newport News, Va.

Four of the suicides took place in the past year, with three happening during one week in April, the Navy has said.

A five-week wait is unacceptable for mother of a George Washington sailor who she said survived a suicide attempt last week. Her son is now awaiting a spot in an in-patient treatment facility because many are full, she said.

Stars and Stripes is not naming the mother and sailor due to privacy concerns.

Smith said it’s not just access to mental health care that’s contributing to the problem – keeping sailors aboard the ship for long periods of time while it’s in the shipyards hurts morale.

For example, hundreds of the George Washington's 2,700-person crew were living aboard the ship earlier this year as its overhaul was scheduled to end. However, the schedule changed and the ship’s time in Newport News was extended to March 2023. The crew was eventually moved off the aircraft carrier again last month after the string of suicides made headlines.

The Navy mother said her son can attest to the ship's harsh living conditions, which he told her included with power outages leading to hot water shortages and no air conditioning in the stuffy ship.

“The way he was treated, he would much rather be at boot camp than to be on the ship – and he's like, ‘And no, I'm not putting [the difficulty of] boot camp lightly, Mom,” she said. “So that's a bold statement.”

Another reason driving the spike in suicides is sailors receive disappointing job assignments during maintenance periods unrelated to their Navy specialties, Smith said.

“Everybody who’s there have those jobs [that are] not, frankly, what they were paid to do,” he said.

When House lawmakers asked Smith what the Navy can do to address the issue, the master chief was blunt – those jobs are necessary for the aircraft carrier to remain in service.

“The pragmatic answer is to be honest with [sailors] and acknowledge and validate as they're feeling the frustration … while still telling them that if [they’re] not willing to do what they do, the George Washington doesn't have another 25 years of life to defend this nation,” Smith said.

The master chief on April 22 visited the ship where, during a speech to the crew, he made insensitive comments comparing their living situations to those of service members in combat, according to a Navy transcript.

“What you're not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing,” Smith said during his speech to the George Washington crew. “What you are doing is going home at night, most nights, unlike the [USS] Harry S. Truman.”

The Harry S. Truman, another aircraft carrier, is now deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to support NATO allies during Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Smith also expressed pessimism about finding a way to end suicides in the Navy during the speech, saying “beating suicide is like beating cancer,” according to the transcript.

The Navy has two investigations into the George Washington suicides and command climate of crews on ships undergoing overhauls, which Smith told House lawmakers Wednesday might reveal new answers.

In the meantime, most George Washington sailors have moved off the ship and into other facilities in the area, he said. Still, about 184 sailors chose to live on the carrier, which he attributed to an easier commute to work.

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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