The Navy is trying to boost morale after a spate of suicides. Is it too little, too late?

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Team-building events are in the works for sailors on the USS George Washington, where three shipmates died by suicide within a span of a week in April.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The Navy’s plan for repairing morale on a historic warship after a rash of sailors assigned to the ship killed themselves includes team-building exercises like a video game competition, recreation and moving sailors off the ship.

But some sailors who spoke to NBC News think the efforts don’t go far enough.

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The Navy plans to host a day of team-building activities and has asked each department to submit ideas for how crew members could interact off the ship, according to Lt. Cmdr. Robert Myers, a Navy spokesman.

“It could be anything,” Myers said.

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A Super Smash Bros. video game competition and a soccer tournament are some of the suggestions that have been floated, according to one George Washington sailor, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

However, that sailor doubted whether such events would fix what appears to be a mental health crisis on the ship.

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The sailors spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press and feared retaliation.

At least five sailors on the George Washington have died by suicide in the last year, including three within a span of a week last month, military officials said. 

“It’s a bit too little, too late. It’s like three or four sailors too late,” the sailor said. “They’re doing it now, but what about them?”

Xavier hunter sandor, natasha huffman and mika’il rayshawn sharp.
Shipmates, from left, Xavier Hunter Sandor, Natasha Huffman and Mika’il Rayshawn Sharp died by suicide within a week in April.Courtesy John Sander; via Facebook; U.S. Navy

Several current and former George Washington sailors told NBC News that their mental health struggles were directly related to a culture where seeking help is not met with the necessary resources, as well as nearly uninhabitable living conditions aboard the ship, including constant construction noise that made sleeping impossible and a lack of hot water, heat and electricity. 

This week, outside of the Newport News Shipyard in Virginia, where the aircraft carrier has been undergoing extensive repairs since 2017, sailors were seen working aboard the George Washington. Many sailors, dressed in military garb and fresh off of their shifts, were seen catching rides to spend time with family after a day’s work.

The Navy said improving working and living conditions is a top priority, while some sailors contend the damage is already done.

“Morale is pretty low,” said a second sailor.

“A lot of people aren’t excited about their jobs,” said the sailor, who was still living on the ship as of Tuesday. “It’s getting a little bit better. They’re trying to make some improvements.” 

The sailor said there are several broken toilets onboard, among many other things that are not working but are in the process of being repaired. “It’s stressful trying to get everything back up to standard,” that sailor said.

Other shipmates told NBC News this week that long commutes, lack of parking, and garbage that litters the vessel’s hallways have also contributed to poor living and working conditions.

“You can just tell people are depressed,” said a third sailor, who recently joined the ship. “I’ve heard this is one of the worst commands in the Navy.”

Repairs on the George Washington will likely not be completed until March 2023, Myers said.

While the military has workforce challenges uniquely different from corporate America, human resource experts say team-building activities generally can help colleagues build trust and relationships with one another, but they would need to occur often to be effective.

“One-time team-building events are unlikely to make a long-term impact, so employers should be consistent,” said Johnny Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, a national trade group. “These don’t necessarily need to be large events, but can incorporate activities that help employees get to know each other, work to resolve an issue or accomplish a goal.”

Taylor said team-building activities alone may not solve specific problems, including those stemming from toxic workplace cultures. Other measures, including employee surveys, would better gauge and address those issues.

Among other efforts to address the situation, the Navy has offered to relocate up to 260 sailors living on the ship into nearby military housing facilities this week. 

Most of the roughly 2,700 sailors on the George Washington go home after their shifts, but about 400 who live out of state or don’t have off-site housing reside onboard.

By the end of the week, upward of 200 people will have moved out of the shipyard, while the Navy works to secure additional accommodations for the remaining crew, Myers said. Each following week, an additional 50 sailors will be offered a chance to move, he added.

After Master-at-Arms Seaman Recruit Xavier Hunter Sandor, 19, died by suicide onboard the George Washington on April 15 — following back-to-back suicides of two shipmates — the Navy sent a special 13-person psychiatric rapid intervention team to counsel those serving on the George Washington from April 16 to April 19.

Sailors on the ship are currently being provided tele-mental health opportunities and expedited appointments for mental health referrals, according to the Navy. 

Sandor’s father, John Sandor, said the Navy should have deployed those resources after the first suicide, which he said could have saved his son. He also said junior sailors should not have been put on the boat in those conditions. 

Junior sailors make up about 95 percent of the George Washington crew, Myers said. When a ship goes through lengthy overhauls, most young crew members are relegated to clean-up and repair tasks rather than the jobs they enlisted in the Navy to do, several sailors said. 

Sandor had been working on the warship for about three months, his family said.

His death came five days after Natasha Huffman, an interior communications electrician, died by suicide off-base, in Hampton, officials said.

The day before, Retail Services Specialist 3rd Class Mika’il Rayshawn Sharp also died by suicide off-base, in Portsmouth, said his mother, Natalie Jefferson. 

The ship’s leaders have since made a more conscious effort of getting sailors off the ship every other week to learn more about what their original intended jobs in the Navy would entail, according to the first sailor who asked to remain anonymous. 

“I’m really glad about that,” the sailor said, although he thinks the changes being implemented might be “just to save face.”

Other sailors welcomed the efforts, despite the timing.

“I think living on a ship messes with people’s mental health, so it’s a good idea that we’re moving people off the ship,” another sailor said. “It took them a while.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

Deon J. Hampton reported from Newport News, Va., and Melissa Chan from New York.

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