USS George Washington Heads to Japan, Ending Troubled Shipyard Stay That Included String of Suicides

Saltwater washdown on Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington
Sailors and inspectors from the Board of Inspection and Survey observe saltwater washdown on Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Atlantic Ocean, April 11, 2024. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class August Clawson)

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington is finally underway to its new homeport in Japan, following six arduous years in a Virginia shipyard that included reports of difficult living conditions and a cluster of suicides among the crew.

On Thursday, the vessel departed Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, and will make stops in Florida, South America and San Diego to switch some crew with the USS Ronald Reagan before heading to Japan by the fall. The ship will be replacing the Reagan as the carrier keeping an eye off Japan's coast.

"Team Warfighter is ready to go," Capt. Tim Waits from Anniston, Alabama, commanding officer of George Washington, said in a press release. "Not only for the adventure that awaits in South America, but ready to serve as the nation's forward-deployed naval forces carrier in Yokosuka."

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The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier began an immense refueling and overhauling upgrade at Newport News in 2017, a process that typically takes only four years. By 2020, completion was pushed to 2022 due to COVID-19 impacts and other delays. The carrier finally left the shipyard in May 2023 for sea trials.

The departure marks a notable moment for the ship. During those years at Newport News, a investigation revealed that the crew's quality of life had deteriorated and that a series of suicides had happened under those difficult conditions.

In 2022, first reported that the Washington had suffered more than a half-dozen suicides since November 2019. Subsequent Navy investigations identified quality-of-life issues, subpar leadership and a failure to take care of sailors as contributing factors.

In the Navy's 2023 report into quality of life aboard the carrier, investigators found that the ship had the highest number of suicide-related behaviors, including suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, from 2017 to 2019 when compared to all aircraft carriers on the East Coast.

In a 2019 command climate survey, George Washington's results were below aircraft carrier and Navy-wide averages in all assessment categories. A 2020 survey showed the same results.

Those same surveys showed that sailors' "awareness of suicidal ideations" on the ship ballooned from 31% to 56% in a single year. The report notes that the ship "did not address this finding."

"It is safe to say that generations of Navy leaders had become accustomed to the reduced quality of life in the shipyard, and accepted the status quo as par for the course for shipyard life," Rear Adm. John Meier, the now retired commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said in one of the investigations into the ship. "As senior sailors, it is easy to forget our Navy life in the beginning."

The Navy's data found that 57% of all suicides on aircraft carriers from 2017 to the present happened while the ship was in the shipyard.

"The shipyard environment is always a challenge," Cmdr. Dawn Stankus, a spokesperson for Naval Air Force Atlantic, told in an interview Friday. "When you're in a shipyard, you don't necessarily get to do what you signed up to do in the military."

But Navy officials are confident that the crew will be better supported after getting out of the shipyard.

In an effort to improve the quality of life aboard the George Washington, in February a new rest and recreation den created by the USO was opened to offer sailors aboard the ship a library, TVs and video games, as well as computers and phones, for them to stay entertained and contact their families, a February press release from the ship detailed.

Following the refueling and upgrades in Norfolk last year, the crew passed numerous pre-deployment certifications, including the Board of Inspection and Survey, or INSURV, Stankus said, referring to a massive, shipwide and congressionally mandated inspection.

"From all of the indications that I've received from higher headquarters, for lack of a better term, they completely crushed their INSURV," Stankus said.

Meanwhile, the ship the George Washington is replacing in Japan, the Ronald Reagan, is set to head to the Bremerton shipyard in Washington for maintenance.

-- Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line at 988 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at

-- Konstantin Toropin contributed to this report.

Related: 'A 9/11-like Event': Navy Report on Carrier Suicides Cites Missed Warning Signs, Leadership Failures

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