Sea Story

Sorry it’s been awhile, I was out of town on a business trip and then I spent most of a week on The Estate getting frustrated with my lack of progress…but that’s not the point of this post.

I read a story the other day about how the USS George Washington has been experiencing a rash of suicides lately.

More than 200 sailors have moved off the USS George Washington aircraft carrier after multiple deaths by suicide among the crew, including three in less than one week in April, according to the Navy.

The GW is in Newport News Naval Shipyard right now undergoing a refit so people may wonder “if they’re not going anywhere, they’re just sitting in port and can go out on the town in the evenings, why are they so stressed out they’re killing themselves?”

I thought it might be enlightening to share a bit of my Naval History.

Through a stroke of pure unluck, I was stationed aboard the USS Enterprise for the end stages of a major yard period at Newport News shipyard. The primary reason for her being in the yards was for a reactor refueling, which on the Enterprise with 8 reactors, was a major undertaking and took several years.

At the point I was on board, the refueling was complete and they were just trying to get the ship back together to get her underway. There had already been several delays and she was late by over a year.

Command of the ship had recently changed and I’m certain that the new CO (Captain Naughton…a name which shall live in infamy – at least in my mind) was under a lot of pressure to get things done. As they say in the military crap rolls downhill so he was passing that pressure on to the department heads, who passed it on to the division officers etc etc etc. The general attitude perfectly matched the old adage “the beatings will continue until morale improves”.

By the time it got down to the worker bees, it was pretty oppressive.

We were working 12 hour shifts 6 days a week (plus watchstanding and duty) and were constantly required to demonstrate that we were making progress. They were threatening to go to 7 days a week if we didn’t show better progress. The carrot was that if we met certain milestones, we could go back to 5 days a week and maybe even to normal 8 hour shifts.

One of the “innovations” being used to save money on the refit was that the ship’s crew were responsible for rehabbing all the personnel spaces…berthings, offices, workspaces and such. That means stripping down to the bare bulkheads, replacing any plumbing, wiring, equipment or hardware that needed replacing, reinsulating, tiling the floor, painting the walls, reinstalling any furniture and fittings (on a Navy ship, bulky furniture isn’t just moved in…it can’t be loose to just roam the decks while in heavy seas…it has to be bolted to the decks and bulkheads (and sometimes overhead).

The biggest problem we were having was in finding supplies. Here’s an example. Our crew was rehabbing one of the crew heads near a berthing space we were also responsible for. Our big hold up at the time was that we couldn’t get the replacement urinals we’d ordered for the head so we were at a standstill and weren’t able to show any progress, which wasn’t sitting well with our superiors. We finally got a supply of the urinals in and started installing them…but at some point at night, some other crew, who apparently were having the same problem we were, came into our head, disconnected and stole several urinals from our space in order to install them in theirs.

Of course, we couldn’t just let stand the fact that not only were we showing no progress, we were moving backward so…we stole urinals from another space being rehabbed. A few days later someone else stole them from us again. And on it went. We were so desperate to show progress that the same equipment was being installed in different spaces over and over and over again.

It wasn’t just urinals, it was most things, but that was the example that I remember most distinctly…probably because they were such a pain in the butt to install and remove, stealing them was no easy task. For some of the smaller items, paint, hardware, etc, people were going out to Lowes and Home Depot and buying the stuff on their own dime because we couldn’t get them from supply in a timely manner.

Another problem was coordination between what the Navy was doing and the shipyard. A space would get finished being rehabbed, and then the shipyard crew would realize “oh, hey, we still need to replace some fittings and piping in the next space over and the only way to get to it is through that space you just rehabbed. tear everything back out again so we can cut the bulkheads out to get to what we need to do”.

The point is, that the crew was working as hard as they could and doing way more work than was necessary because of the ridiculous pressures being put on them from above. It was hugely stressful.

Apparently one of the big differences was that the Enterprise at the time wasn’t in nearly good enough shape for the crew to be staying onboard. There was a big barge that mainly just consisted of barracks-like rooms and a chow hall docked to a pier nearby. It was called the “FAF” (Floating Accommodation Facility) and was where most of the (lower ranking) crew were housed. There were also some apartments out in town that higher ranks got to use.

The GW still had crew onboard. Let me tell you, a ship in the yard is not an environment that anyone wants to be living in. It’s dirty, it’s dangerous and it’s not an…um…restful environment.

I can say from experience that pretty much everyone would rather be at sea than onboard a ship during a yard period. It really and truly sucks.

The fact that sailors are taking their own lives to get out of the situation tells me that the command environment on the GW is probably similar to what I experienced on the Enterprise…or perhaps even worse.

One of the big problems with the modern military is that the “leaders” aren’t promoted due to any leadership ability or military acumen, they’re promoted for being the best politicians. Kissing the right butts, saying the right things, toeing the right lines, etc. The ability to inspire men (and women now) to follow them into battle, the willingness to sacrifice their career (or even the next evaluation cycle) for the well being of their subordinates, the willingness to take a stand for what is morally right even when it’s personally costly to do so…those characteristics are extremely rare (possibly extinct) in the military brass.

So when they are pressured to “get the ship out of the yards now” by the politicians above them because it looks bad if they have to announce (another) delay, their response is to beat the people under them relentlessly to try to get more blood out of that turnip, because they know that if the job doesn’t get done, they may get passed over for promotion until next time and that just won’t do.

The really sad thing is that what ends up happening is the hardest working, most dedicated, most skilled people end up getting beat right out of the Navy. They can be successful anywhere and they know it. Why would they stay in for the abuse when they can get a nice, stable, well-paying job in the civilian sector where they’re actually treated like human beings?

There are times for utmost effort and sacrifice and when those times arrive, members of the military answer the call willingly, selflessly and without hesitation; but solely for the purposes of saving some pampered politician’s reputation and career ain’t it. I strongly suspect that this is the root of the problem on the GW.

And the really sad thing is that it’s unlikely to change any time soon. The beatings will continue until morale improves.

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