After a series of deaths and suicides among the crew of the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier dry-docked in Virginia for maintenance since 2017, the Navy will begin allowing hundreds of sailors to live off ship this week.
Within the last year, seven sailors assigned to the ship have died, four of them likely suicides.
"The 7 deaths are for the following reasons: 2 health-related death, 1 undetermined, 1 confirmed suicide, and 3 apparent suicides that remain under investigation," a Naval Air Force Atlantic official told ABC News in a statement.
Four of the deaths were in 2021, and the last three occurred within one week this April.
Among several changes being made in response to the series of tragedies and complaints from sailors about working and living conditions aboard the USS George Washington, the Navy will begin offering temporary housing for those currently living on the ship.
The vast majority of the roughly 2,700-strong crew already sleep elsewhere, with about 400 living aboard. As early as Monday, 260 of those sailors will be able to opt out of living on the vessel, according to a Naval Air Force Atlantic official. That option will open up for an additional 50 sailors per week thereafter.
The carrier is at the Newport News Shipyard undergoing a "refueling complex overhaul," which the Navy describes as "a multi-year project performed only once during a carrier’s 50-year service life that includes refueling the ship’s two nuclear reactors, as well as significant repairs, upgrades, and modernization."
The work is expected to finish this winter, a Navy official told ABC News.
The Navy has also acted to boost mental health support for the crew, including the addition of a clinical psychologist and a licensed clinical social worker, and expedited referrals for mental health appointments, according to the Navy.
The three apparent suicides are being looked at by a Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation and two local law-enforcement investigations, according to an official. The Navy has also announced a broader look into conditions on its carriers under maintenance.
"Rear Adm. Dunham, Deputy Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic, was directed to lead a larger team to assess various quality of life (QoL) considerations for our aircraft carriers currently undergoing maintenance. We are finalizing the composition of this team, however it will incorporate multi-disciplinary subject matter experts (SMEs) from numerous stakeholders who will identify the program areas that may require increased attention, support, or resources. Their recommendations will inform potential future action, identify areas for improvements, and propose mitigation strategies to optimize QoL,” said Naval Air Force Atlantic spokesman Cmdr. Robert Myers in a statement.
Shortly after the latest deaths, the senior enlisted sailor in the Navy, Master Chief Russell Smith visited the USS George Washington to address the crew and take questions.
When asked by a sailor about higher levels of suicide and mental health problems specifically on ships under maintenance, Smith acknowledged the special challenges of serving a ship during an overhaul.
"How many of you signed up to go to a ship in the yards? How many of you thought, man, I can't wait to be in a dry dock ... and instead chip paint and do all the things that we do to make our ship ready to go to war?" he asked the crew. "No one wants to do that work."
He continued: "So if you're less happy because you don't feel like you're doing the thing that you came here to do, you're hemorrhaging your technical abilities in whatever rating you're in. It's not optimal. We know that."
Smith also said that the Navy is aware of the issue of suicide, and that it is a tough one to solve.
"I understand that we still have a problem and the department has been focusing on it, but the problem is beating suicide is like beating cancer," Smith said. "There are many different causes, many different reasons."
Other Navy leaders have offered their sympathies over the recent loss of life among the crew.
"The tragic events that have transpired involving Sailors assigned to the USS George Washington is a sad reminder of the heartbreak and sorrow that follow the loss of a friend, family member, or shipmate. While the Navy is a resilient force, we are not immune from the same challenges that affect the nation that we serve," said Naval Air Force Atlantic Commander Rear Adm. John Meier.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 [TALK] for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also reach the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or the Crisis Text Line by texting "START" to 741741.