The conversation with Captain Brent Gaut lasted two hours, according to four sailors present who spoke with CNN. In it, Gaut acknowledged what the sailors had felt for months. He said the crew got back to the carrier too soon, the sailors recalled, but it was too late to go back.
Another sailor told CNN Gaut he spoke about the ship-wide speaker system, known as 1MC or 1 Main Circuit, about two months ago and said the ship, which was undergoing major maintenance, was not ready for sailors to move aboard when the process last began. summer. But he said: “There is no turning back now. We cannot reverse course.”
CNN reached out to the Navy to comment on Gaut’s remarks.
The situation on the aircraft carrier drew national attention when three sailors took their own lives in a week last month. But twelve current and former crew members of the George Washington who spoke with CNN, painted a disturbing picture of a ship with myriad problems, including what many said were terrible accommodation standards on the ship. which was actually a construction site, concerns about the quality of food, and a sense that leadership was not addressing issues and dismissing complaints.
But they weren’t the only fatalities on the carrier as it remained moored at the Newport News shipyard. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has been going through its mid-life refueling and overhaul process since the summer of 2017. The process, originally scheduled to last four years, has been delayed several times until at least March 2023, it said. Marine.
Sailors who agreed to speak to CNN all said the ship was uninhabitable. Sailors began moving aboard the aircraft carrier about a year ago, when the ship had already been in its refueling and overhaul process for four years and was supposed to be ready to welcome part of the crew. . Even after years of work preparing the aircraft carrier for its next deployment, the ship remained a 24-hour construction zone. Often the challenges of life on board hit the youngest sailors the hardest.
“I was ready for a shitty situation, but I had no idea it would be in the yards,” a sailor currently assigned to the George Washington told CNN. Most of the sailors spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing the consequences of speaking about their own Navy careers or those of their friends.
In the past 12 months, the crew of the USS George Washington has suffered seven deaths, including at least four by suicide, the Navy said. Xavier Sandor, who worked security on the ship, according to those who knew him, committed suicide on April 15, the third suicide in a week among the crew.
“How do you sleep on an aircraft carrier with jackhammers and fumes and smells during the day?” asked John Sandor, demanding an explanation. “He would sleep in his car. No sailor should even have lived on this ship in these conditions.”
Aboard the ship, it was nearly impossible to find a quiet place to sleep, sailors said, and the ship suffered constant power outages and lacked hot water. The berths often lacked ventilation, they said, and the ship’s massive metal structure amplified the outside temperature until it became unbearable.
“I was waking up in the middle of the night freezing my ass off,” another sailor told CNN. “I lived in my car in the winter, and I always felt it better than my docking.” The sailor, who says he was 19 at the time, was shocked by the conditions on the ship, a far cry from his expectations of life in the Navy. He lived in his car on and off for about 3 weeks, he says, until he got more used to the carrier’s limitations.
“It’s all the way down,” he told CNN, speaking of the situation on the USS George Washington.
The crew left the ship
Earlier this week, the ship’s commanding officer announced that about half of the more than 400 crew members living on board the carrier would be moving to temporary accommodation outside the ship. Others who wanted to do the same would also have the opportunity. Sailors who spoke with CNN all agreed it was the right thing to do.
When asked if the Navy was aware that crew members slept in their cars rather than on the ship, a US Naval Air Force Atlantic spokesperson said that each sailor “had the means to accommodate and that the Navy would look into whether accommodation was a factor. in suicides.
“Navy and Congressional leaders have met extensively with current leaders aboard the USS George Washington, and are confident that the leadership team is working hard – within and beyond their lifelines – to take care of the crew,” Commander Robert Myers said in a statement. at CNN. “Our current focus is to ensure that we provide a safe and healthy environment for our sailors on board GW, and that the management team on board has the resources to do so.”
A sailor shared messages from the ship’s digital suggestion box with CNN, where people could report problems or share ideas. Many posts were categorized as ‘Quality of Life’ and focused on issues such as remote parking, low morale or food. But rarely has anything changed, the sailors said.
“Complaining won’t help. You just have to suffer in silence,” said a fourth sailor assigned to the ship.
Even a full meal was sometimes hard to come by, several sailors told CNN.
“They would run out of food, and if they had anything left it would be – if you’re lucky – a little cereal or a little chicken leg which may or may not be undercooked,” said the fourth sailor who worked. often night security teams.
“Prisoners have better food than what we have in the military,” said a sailor recently transferred from the USS George Washington. The carrier was her first assignment and she says she developed a drinking problem for a time due to the living conditions.
“It’s the craziest environment I’ve ever been in,” she said.
Two weeks ago, Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Russell Smith, the service’s finest sailor, visited the George Washington and spoke to the crew. In a statement released later, he said his visit to the ship was for an “open and honest dialogue” where he wanted to “learn about the difficulties our sailors face” and “understand their concerns”.
But when he told sailors they should have “reasonable expectations” and not “sleep in a burrow like a Marine might”, some crew members were stunned. The ship’s fourth sailor called it a “laughable and offensive speech”.
“That’s no reason why we live the way we do,” the second sailor said. “Things can be done to fix what we’re going through.”
Another former sailor assigned to the George Washington described the situation on board as “unacceptable”, especially given the means available to the military to remedy the conditions and quality of life.
“This is not Afghanistan where you expect these circumstances,” he said. “It’s Newport News, Virginia.”
The Navy is “confident that our thorough investigation and assessment of the command climate and various quality of life issues will identify areas for future improvement and provide recommendations for immediate action,” Commander Myers said.
US Naval Air Force Atlantic Commander Admiral John Meier said the ship has also added more mental health resources, such as a special response team and an additional psychologist. Crew members aboard the USS George Washington will also have access to tele-mental health resources and onboard training for young sailors.
The increase in mental health resources is long overdue, according to sailors who spoke to CNN. Although the ship has a clinical psychologist, the sailors said they would have to wait months for an appointment.
When Jacob Grella, who had spent most of his time in the Navy assigned to the George Washington, discovered he was assigned to the aircraft carrier, which was a short drive from his family in Richmond, Virginia, he said on Facebook that he was “so very happy.” But it didn’t take long for his occasional weekend trips to become a chance to escape the ship.
Grella said he tried to schedule a visit to the ship’s psychologist during his final year on the ship.
When he did, he faced “a six-month waiting period”, after which “I would have been almost out of the Navy”.
Despite his frustration, Grella and many other sailors who spoke with CNN believed that a profound change in the ship’s culture and climate was achievable.
“I think it’s very possible,” he said, “but for that to happen, I think at this point accountability has to be held for everyone. You have to start to look at what’s causing the setbacks and what’s causing this negative treatment and mentalities on these poor kids.”