WASHINGTON — The Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington has lost nine crew members in the past two years while the ship has undergone a five-year overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding.
Six of those deaths are believed to have been by suicide. Three of the suspected suicides took place during a single week in April.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) at Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, pressed Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro for answers.
"I want to ask you about the George Washington," said Kaine. "There's been this series of deaths but also the underlying conditions that sailors endure while a carrier is undergoing an overhaul. Talk a little bit about how the Navy is looking at this George Washington situation – not only the particular instances but the particular challenges that result from these very lengthy shipyard berths."
"Without question, there's no greater responsibility than the safety of our sailors and our Marines and particularly, when sailors go into an extended overhaul," Del Toro answered.
Del Toro acknowledged the Navy must do more.
"We need to collectively do a better job to provide the necessary resources to the ship itself in the contracts that are negotiated with the shipyard itself to provide a higher quality of life for those sailors in the shipyard."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday told House lawmakers that Del Toro will visit USS George Washington in the shipyard on May 17.
Suicide isn't a new issue among Navy service members.
Kaine co-sponsored the "Brandon Act," named for Petty Officer Third Class Brandon Caserta, who died by suicide at Naval Station Norfolk in 2018.
That measure, which was just signed by President Joe Biden in March, is designed to allow service members to confidentially seek mental health treatment outside their chain of command.
In March, a new report showed that the U.S. military in 2020 saw active duty suicides increase for the fourth year in a row.
According to a Department of Defense report, a total of 377 active duty service members died by suicide in 2020. That number is up from 348 the year before.
Suicides among active duty service members have been steadily increasing since 2016 when there were 280.