Exclusive: On USS George H.W. Bush, Ship that Lost Crew to Suicide, 'Stress Comes From the Top Down'

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The end of the catapult runway is seen early in the morning on the deck of the the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier on May 12, 2018 in the Atlantic Ocean. Local and federal authorities have launched investigations into the deaths of three sailors from the Navy aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush after a string of recent suicides last week. ERIC BARADAT/Getty

As local and federal authorities launch investigations into the deaths of sailors from the Navy aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush after a string of recent suicides, interviews with former crew members and an official Pentagon report from 2018 show a disconnect within the command climate between the lower enlisted and senior ranks.

An official survey obtained by Newsweek through the Freedom of Information Act and published here for the first time, details how roughly a third of the ship's entire crew perceived the command climate aboard the aircraft carrier in May 2018. The ship's current commanding officer, Navy Captain Sean R. Bailey, conducted the survey about four months after assuming command of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush from now-Rear Admiral Will Pennington in January 2018.

Of the 16 major categories which make up the overall unit summary, the responses from 915 Bush crew members resulted in 14 areas of caution when compared to the rest of the U.S. Navy.

In subgroup comparisons, two areas in particular, were rated "below service average," a rating classified as an "area of great concern and corrective actions must be taken ASAP." The two areas of prominent worry focus on the inclusion of women within the ranks and how junior enlisted sailors feel about job satisfaction.

But a close examination of the Bush's organizational effectiveness and factors examining equal opportunity and sexual assault prevention and response appears to show a disconnect between junior enlisted sailors and the officers and senior enlisted aboard the ship.

Navy Commander Jennifer Cragg, a public affairs officer, told Newsweek via email Monday that between the April 2018 survey to a more recent report in June 2019, "The command climate overall has improved; specifically, the ship's rating improved in all 16 climate factor categories, and rated higher than the Navy average in all categories. The 2019 survey did not indicate any major areas of concern in the climate sub-factor comparisons."

The command uses "observations, focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and records reviews to clarify and validate the areas of concern," when survey results are received. "Command leadership debriefed the crew on survey results and took actions intended to address issues and recommendations," Cragg said.

Newsweek has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the June 2019 command climate survey. You can read the 2018 report below.

"The stress on the ship is coming from the top down," former Bush Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Shawn Peacock, 31, told Newsweek. "The supervisors and chiefs are working long hours and then getting stress from the top to take care of the people below them...and then that falls on the junior enlisted."

Peacock, who left the ship in 2016, said that current and former Bush crew members told him that supervisors and chiefs are blamed for the mistakes of junior enlisted—adding more top-down stress on the lower ranks. In Navy parlance, "shit rolls downhill," said Peacock.

In the survey, the military adage seems to appear in the color-coding of the climate report as the collective responses from senior enlisted service members and officers offer sharply different perspectives on the climate aboard the aircraft carrier than the junior enlisted.

Total responses from the senior enlisted and officer ranks resulted in the Bush receiving either an adequate rating (meaning not areas of concern but room for improvement) or an excellent rating in every category examining the command climate of the ship.

Conversely, the collective responses from junior enlisted sailors resulted in areas of caution or improvement needed as soon as possible in all categories but one.

The only category rated as "adequate" by junior sailors concerned the ship's response to sexual assault. However, sexual assault retaliation within the chain of command was rated as an area of caution by junior enlisted.

Out of the 915 Bush crew members who responded to the survey, the junior enlisted made up almost 81 percent of respondents. Senior enlisted accounted for 10 percent, while officers and warrant officers accounted for roughly 8 percent.

"It builds up and builds up in your head and that would be the point where...you need to go talk to a psychiatrist but on the Bush, people are afraid to seek out mental health because they fear being removed from their position by the chain of command," Peacock told Newsweek. "In some rates [Navy occupations] you can't take depression medicine because they will lose their jobs. Others fear possibly losing their security clearances."

Three other former Bush crew members, who asked not to be named, described similar conditions to Newsweek.

"As a command, we are constantly looking for ways to improve morale and communication up and down the chain of command, in addition to removing any barriers restricting feedback to leadership," Navy Captain Sean Bailey, the aircraft carrier's commanding officer, said in an email to Newsweek on Monday.

The survey, known officially as the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute Command Climate Survey, requires units to annually complete the survey per Pentagon policy or within 90 days of a new commander taking the reins of a new unit.

However, participation in the survey is voluntary among the service members of the unit and responses to the survey are anonymous even from the commanding officer.

The surveys are used to "enhance accountability and improve insight into subordinate command climate," according to the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, which administers the surveys.

When asked about their perceptions of connectedness, defined by the report as "a frame of mind that reflects an individual's outlook on life and perceptions of belongingness, well-being, and social support," more than 20 percent gave unfavorable responses.

78 sailors said individuals in their workplace on the ship pressured them to engage in either physically or psychologically harmful acts or actions that were either illegal or dangerous. 859 sailors respondent as non-applicable.

On bullying, 214 individuals who are seen as "different" were targets of aggression, abusive or malicious pranks, active attempts to damage their reputation, physical and psychological harm.

In response to the 2018 survey and to provide comment on the Bush's recent survey, Cragg said, "Beyond the annual survey, Sailors of all ranks are always encouraged to communicate using all available resources. Some of these include the command managed equal opportunity program manager, hotlines, suggestion boxes, the chain of command including senior Sailors, and chaplains."

The three sailors recently found dead were all assigned to the aircraft carrier, which is in dry dock at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia undergoing planned maintenance and repairs. The three deaths occurred off base at separate locations and there does not appear to be a connection between the deaths. Criminal activity is also not a factor.

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Captain Sean Bailey commander of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier answers journalists questions on May 11, 2018 in the Atlantic Ocean. “My heart is broken,” wrote Bailey, the on Monday when he announced in a Facebook post a batch of recent suicides among his crew. ERIC BARADAT/Getty

"My heart is broken," wrote Bailey, the commanding officer of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush last week when he announced in a Facebook post the batch of recent suicides among his crew.

"These deaths mark the third, fourth, and fifth crew member suicides in the last two years," wrote Bailey. "Now is the time to come together as a crew and as a family to grieve, to support each other, and to care for those in need."

Cragg confirmed to Newsweek that the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush held a safety stand-down on Wednesday and Thursday for crew members to learn about available resources and counseling services.

"A special psychiatric rapid intervention team (SPRINT) was also on board the ship to assist Sailors and their grieving process," wrote Cragg in an email to Newsweek. "The leadership of USS George H.W. Bush are engaged with their crew and focused on taking care of their Sailors and their families. Chaplains, psychologists, counselors and leadership are providing support and counseling to those grieving as well."

On Thursday, the Pentagon released its annual suicide report for 2018, raising concern over why the suicide rate among the armed forces continues to rise despite efforts at prevention.

A total of 541 active duty, reserve, and National Guard troops died by suicide in 2018. Rates among the active-duty component increased over the last five years

The U.S. Navy lost 79 sailors in 2018 and was the only service to experience a "statistically significant increase" in suicide rates between 2013 and 2018, according to the report.

An Unofficial Digital Watchdog

Peacock joined the U.S. Navy in 2010 and by late 2011 was assigned to the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. In November 2016, he left the aircraft carrier and rotated out of the Navy.

Along with a friend, the former Navy sailor started the Facebook page, "Decelerate Your Life," a play on the U.S. Navy's old recruiting slogan, "Accelerate your life."

"We started the page because we liked to make people laugh and it seemed to just grow and grow...and with the Bush...we always just keep an eye on their Facebook page for the ship, and you just keep seeing thing after thing—suicide after suicide," said Peacock.

Many of those in the Facebook group, which has over 213,000 followers, believe their posts brought attention to the command climate aboard the U.S.S. George W. H. Bush. Peacock and others on the Decelerate Your Life page frequently heard from—and posted comments from—current members of the crew.

Newsweek first learned of the conditions on the ship when a former Bush crew member and an administrator for the Decelerate Your Life page reached out to this publication.

Last week, as reporters turned their attention to the naval ship, Peacock told Newsweek that sailors aboard the aircraft carrier told him Bush leaders urged crew members over a ship-wide public announcement system, known as a "1 Main Circuit or 1MC," to not speak with members of the press.

"This is not true. All Sailors have the Constitutional right to communicate
with the media," said Cragg.

Newsweek was unable to independently verify if Bush leaders instructed the crew members not to speak to members of the press.

Service members, veterans and their friends and family who need help can call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, press 1, for assistance, or text 838255. The Veterans Crisis Line is 800-273-8255.

Exclusive: On USS George H.W. Bush, Ship that Lost Crew to Suicide, 'Stress Comes From the Top Down' | U.S.