Congress considers additional compensation to counter the wave of suicides in Alaska and on ships in the yard

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Soldiers in the freezing Arctic and sailors aboard ships under major construction could get extra pay as lawmakers seek to respond with unavoidable legislation to the spate of suicides among service members in Alaska and on the USS George Washington.

Included in the version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, advanced last week by the House Armed Services Committee, provisions provide new monthly allowances of $200 to sailors on ships undergoing nuclear resupply. and complex overhauls and $300 monthly stipends to service members “assigned to perform cold weather operations.”

The stipends are among several measures in the bill “to address the epidemic of military suicide deaths in Alaska, on the USS George Washington and throughout the military,” said Jackie Speier, D- California, chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel subgroup, said in a statement last week.

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The measures come after Military.com revealed the ship had suffered a string of undisclosed suicides dating back to at least last July. Rear Adm. John Meier, Commander Naval Air Force Atlantic, said the ship had suffered nine suicides in two years as of April 2022, but reports from Military.com suggest that figure could be higher. The sailors told Military.com the ship’s commanding officer told them that between July 2021 and April 2022 there were 10 suicides aboard the ship, although the publication could only confirm six sailor suicides. assigned to the vessel in the past year.

The vessel has been undergoing a complex overhaul at the Newport News Shipyard in Virginia since 2017. Overhauls typically last four years and are typically completed midway through a carrier’s 50-year lifespan to resupply the nuclear reactor and see to repairs and upgrades. The redesign of the George Washington, however, has been extended twice and is not expected to be completed again until early 2023.

Sailors who spoke to Military.com said living conditions aboard the shipyard-bound carrier had become unbearable and cited junior sailors having to live aboard the ship while it is still under construction, as well as parking issues that created extended journeys, as some of the main culprits for low morale on board.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., who represents the area around Norfolk and the shipyard, told reporters in May that until news of the deaths becomes public, quality of life issues at aboard the ship did not appear to be on the Navy’s radar. Luria noted that Navy leaders “have made no specific request for this in this budget.”

In addition to stipends, the NDAA would require the Navy to offer paid moves to sailors assigned to ships undergoing a complex overhaul and ensure that billets on those ships are at least 75% full.

Meier told the press in May that while the ship had about 95% of the ship’s junior sailors on board, it only had about 65% of its senior personnel enlisted.

The Navy should also assign at least two behavioral health providers and two behavioral health technicians to each aircraft carrier.

The service is also expected to explore options for expanding accommodations and parking closer to shipyards where complex overhauls are carried out, as well as report to lawmakers on quality-of-life issues related to the George Washington.

The Navy confirmed that the crew living aboard the ship had been given the option of moving to on-base accommodation just over a week after news of the suicides was reported and days after the top official of the Navy, Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Russell Smith, told the crew that the service was largely powerless to improve conditions.

“In early May, I met and spoke with junior enlisted sailors and Navy leaders aboard the USS George Washington, and it was clear that the status quo aboard ships undergoing [refueling and complex overhaul] is not acceptable,” Luria, who authored several of the George Washington-related amendments, said in a statement last week.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, at least 11 soldiers committed suicide last year, and six other deaths are under investigation. This amounted to seven soldier suicides in 2020 and eight in 2019.

Lawmakers and other leaders have partly blamed the socially isolating nature of working in a remote location like Alaska, as well as a lack of resources for the Arctic mission and long wait times for mental health appointments.

In addition to the $300 in “arctic pay” stipends, the House NDAA is seeking to alleviate some of the stressors of living in Alaska with pilot programs to enable car-sharing services at Alaska bases and to provide stipends to offset the higher cost of internet there. compared to the neighboring United States. Internet allowances would start at $125 per month next year and could change in subsequent years based on cost differences between internet plans in Alaska and the continental United States.

The government could also pay for airfare for out-of-state service members and dependents in Alaska to make at least one return trip per three-year tour under another provision. of the NDAA.

The bill still needs to pass the full House and reconcile with the Senate version of the NDAA before it becomes law.

The version of the NDAA put forward this month by the Senate Armed Services Committee, a summary of which has been published but not the full text, includes measures to “expand access to mental health providers and support in remote military facilities, encourage behavioral health students to work in the military health system upon graduation, and improve living conditions for service members stationed in Alaska,” according to a press release from Sen. Dan Sullivan, R- Alaska.

— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

— Konstantin Toropin can be contacted at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Remote bases see more suicide attempts but fewer deaths, watchdog says

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