In the wake of a string of housing scandals, including troubling living conditions aboard an aircraft carrier that has seen a cluster of suicides, the Navy is still prioritizing other construction issues over housing, leaders told Congress on Wednesday.
Navy officials, testifying before an appropriations subcommittee, emphasized that much of the construction spending will instead go toward shipyard capabilities.
"With these resources, we'll continue to optimize our naval shipyards [and] enable operating capability of platforms such as the Columbia-class submarine and the F-35," Meredith Berger, the assistant secretary of the Navy for Environment, Installations and Energy, told the subcommittee Wednesday when describing the branch's nearly $3.8 billion construction budget request.
According to the Navy's budget request, released in late March, the service's planned construction spending heavily tilts toward new weapons platforms. More than $2 billion out of the $3.78 billion budget is slated for "new platform/mission support" and "naval shipyards," according to documents provided by the Navy. The "naval shipyards" category is the single largest in the plan at $1.2 billion.
On Tuesday, the Navy's two top officials, the Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, visited the aircraft carrier George Washington, met with leadership, toured the ship, and talked with sailors about housing issues, according to a press release.
"I've had several conversations with both the secretary of defense and the deputy secretary, and we all know this is hard and want to make it better," Del Toro said.
Details of the Navy's troubles with housing for its sailors -- especially its newest and most junior -- have steadily emerged throughout the year.
In February a Navy Times investigation revealed that the service was aware of issues plaguing the barracks at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for years that included a lack of air conditioning and hot water. Hundreds of junior service members were moved out of the buildings the Monday after the report was published.
Then, in late April, Military.com reported that the Navy didn't disclose a string of suicides aboard the George Washington. One of the key issues that sailors mentioned at that command was being forced to live on a ship that was an active industrial zone, complete with constant noise from power tools and outages to services like electricity and hot water.
On Friday, Military.com reported that junior sailors were struggling to find adequate housing at the Navy's base in Key West after that facility closed its barracks for renovations.
The prioritization of shipbuilding capacity in the Navy's budget stood in contrast to assertions by the service's top enlisted sailor, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith, who testified that "sailor quality-of-life issues are at the forefront of concern" for the department. Smith also testified that sailors are key to bringing ships to life and are "the X factor -- the decisive advantage that cannot be seen when comparing forces on paper."
Smith was pressed by several lawmakers about the Navy's response to the situation aboard the George Washington, but he offered little in the way of concrete changes.
"The pragmatic answer is just to be honest with them and acknowledge and validate how they're feeling ... while still telling them that, frankly, if they don't do what they do ... the George Washington doesn't have another 25 years of life to defend this nation," Smith told Congress.
After Military.com reported on the string of suicides in the last 10 months, citing sailor recollections of an announcement by the ship's commander, the Navy initially confirmed only a series of deaths, not suicides. Subsequently, Military.com was able to confirm five suicides in that time period, while the Navy has now acknowledged four.
Military.com has confirmed an additional, previously unreported, suicide. A sailor who had been assigned to the ship but was undergoing training elsewhere took his own life in February.
When Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, a former enlisted sailor himself, asked why it took the suicides for the Navy to find sailors "habitable housing," Smith pushed back on that as the cause.
"The actions of the crew and the horrible circumstance of suicide did not wake someone to the problem to make them say, 'Now we need to move people off board,'" Smith said.
He also noted that "about 184" sailors have chosen to keep living aboard the ship.
"I have suffered through conditions on ships because I would rather not deal with a longer commute," Smith added, seemingly suggesting that these remaining sailors may have felt the same way.
The chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., told the officials testifying that "the quality of life of our service members should be a high priority," before adding that "toys, for lack of a better term, should not be a higher priority than making sure [of the] quality of where our troops live."
Smith also hinted at the fact that, ultimately, ships will win out over sailors when he noted that what Wasserman Schultz called "toys" were actually "things we use to fight. ... A Navy can't fight without a ship, or an aircraft or submarine," before conceding that he "would probably make different puts and takes to make sure that I had the shore facilities."
When Military.com asked the Navy in March whether any of the planned expenditures were specifically aimed at sailors, a spokeswoman highlighted two planned barracks in Japan for Marines and a child development center in San Diego.
Berger and other Navy leaders, however, did testify that the service's Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program's (SIOP) -- part of that naval shipyards budget line -- "is important for our people and our quality of life because this is how we will make sure that they are equipped to succeed in terms of mission."
Vice Adm. Ricky Williamson, deputy chief of naval operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics, told the subcommittee that the Navy is looking at the conditions at the Newport News shipyard, the location of the George Washington, to determine "what is necessary to accommodate two ships [undergoing work] going forward -- not only for the maintenance of the ship but also the maintenance of the sailor."
"Our chief petty officers, our senior NCOs, need to do more to lean in and be that first care provider, to be that first compassionate shoulder that says what's going on," Smith said.
In contrast, the Marine Corps' top enlisted leader, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black, testified that "one of the top reasons that Marines leave our service is due to the poor living conditions."
"We must continue to seek resources in order to improve those conditions," Black said.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.