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Sailors Report Enduring Concerns About Navy Readiness and Leadership

Sailors from every active fleet responded to a ProPublica callout, noting a continued lack of training, widespread exhaustion and an acute sense of vulnerability.

Navy crew members of the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the 7th Fleet, stand on the deck as the ship is docked during a port call on April 20, 2019, in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

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The responses by the sailors — consistent, repeated — can be jarring to read:

Are you getting enough sleep? “No.”

Do you feel well-trained to do your job? “No.”

Have there been scenarios in which you or your bosses had concerns about the safety of the ship and crew but felt they could not say no to new tasking? “Yes.”

Please rate your confidence in Navy leadership in the Pentagon. “I am not confident.”

On Feb. 26, ProPublica published a callout aimed primarily at active-duty men and women in the U.S. Navy. We had published two stories about neglect, exhaustion and deadly mishaps in the 7th Fleet, the largest armada anywhere and once the Navy’s crown jewel. Now, we wanted to take a measure of the confidence in the many reforms the Navy had announced in assuring the nation that it was addressing the systemic shortcomings laid bare after two fatal accidents in the Pacific in 2017.

We’ve received dozens of responses from active-duty sailors and their families, but also from people who retired from the Navy, academics and contractors.

Thirty active-duty sailors have completed our callout so far. Twenty-eight of them testified to some combination of fear, lack of training and an absence of confidence in the Navy’s leadership. Almost one-fifth of them described working 100 hours a week or more while underway.

One officer in the 2nd Fleet lamented that there was still not consistent training to enable men and women to master the wide variety of steering systems in place on the fleet’s ships. A sailor on a 7th Fleet aircraft carrier worried that the widespread problem of sleep deprivation was leading to profound mental health issues, with some sailors being placed on suicide watch. Another 2nd Fleet sailor said that the promised reforms aimed at improving training, adequately staffing ships and better caring for overtaxed service members sounded fine on their face, but that they ran the risk of proving to be a largely empty exercise.

“If the Navy paid more attention to the job satisfaction and intrinsic motivation of sailors, then a lot of these other systemic issues will fix themselves,” the sailor wrote. “All of these recommendations are great, but if it is not a joint effort for change, with ideas and suggestions from those expected to implement the change, then it will just continue a ‘culture of compliance,’ which Navy leaders have stated they want to transform into a ‘culture of excellence.’ This change cannot be forced down, but must be grown from the ground up.”

A spokesman said that Navy leadership continues to take “aggressive action” implementing changes meant to address the issues revealed by ProPublica’s reporting. “The reform process will take time, resources, and most importantly, trust,” Cmdr. Jereal Dorsey said. In response to sailor feedback, some commanders have “taken action where appropriate,” including canceling deployments for ships that weren’t ready.

The callout, to be sure, is limited, and it is perhaps not surprising that responses have so far been dominated by people who felt alarmed or found fault with the Navy. But the responses certainly echo the themes the Navy has already conceded are problems. As well, almost two years after the deadly crashes involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain, the Navy has yet to fully satisfy its congressional overseers that the reforms have been accomplished.

The callout has produced responses from each of the Navy’s six numbered fleets that patrol the world’s oceans.

One sailor told of how those serving on some ships coordinate via secret Facebook groups to try and help one another figure out how to operate and repair their vessels. Another said the wait for mental health care at one base was so long that she was forced to get some modest help for herself through her child’s therapist.

We’re not done reporting, not by a long shot. Our reporters will continue to work on finding and telling these stories, and the more help we get from the community, the better.

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