When the USS Harry S. Truman carrier goes in for repairs soon, its 2,500 sailors will have access to new digs inspired by the cruise ship industry.
On Monday, the Navy held a ribbon-cutting for Auxiliary Personnel Lighter 68, its first berthing barge in 22 years.
The 609‐berth barge gives sailors "first-class accommodations" such as sleeping quarters with more privacy and modular bathrooms patterned after cruise ships, which make it easier to accommodate mixed-gender crews, said Rear Admiral William Greene, fleet maintenance officer for U.S. Fleet Forces.
APL 68 has central and self-service laundry rooms, a gym, and a barbershop. The drop-in space also provides a mess hall, lounge rooms and modular classrooms.
"This is a challenging environment to be in," Greene said. "Folks didn't join the Navy to be in a shipyard."
It's been a long time since crews had to live on their ships during repairs, Greene said, and an active shipyard isn't an easy place to live even for short periods. Sailors work in the heat, cold, and constant noise, and there's little respite.
Quality of life in the Navy has received scrutiny this year after three sailors on the USS George Washington died by suicide in one week in April, with reports that poor living conditions may have contributed to the crisis. The ship was in Newport News for repairs.
"We've taken on some aggressive actions following the incidents on George Washington," Greene said, adding that the Navy's investigation found pay, unaccompanied housing -- where single sailors live -- and quality of life and work were key concerns.
An additional three sailors died by suicide in recent weeks, Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine confirmed Monday. The sailors were assigned to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center at Naval Station Norfolk but were not attached to a ship.
The Navy has worked to reduce the time sailors live on the ship while it's in for repair, Greene said, and only 52 of the sailors will be living on the barge full-time when it opens in early December. The rest of the crew will use the barge when they have ship duty -- about one day a week, depending on their assignment.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Tate Cardinal, 22, has been in the Navy for about three years and spent two of them with the Truman. This will be his second time working from the shipyard while the ship undergoes repairs.
Many of the ship's crew are younger who may not have the strongest support systems and sleeping on the ship doesn't improve matters. The barge, Cardinal said, will give them a place to stay that's clean and warm.
"Compared to being on the ship, which is a construction site," Cardinal said.
As important as the nicer quarters may be, the most requested update, Greene said, was better computer access.
The barge has been requested since 2002 and has been in the works since 2013, according to U.S. Fleet Forces Technical Director Steve Dungan. The Navy plans to add 12 large barges like this and 26 "medium" ones. Only one of the additional large barges is complete so far.
The barge has more than double the access points of existing barges and was designed for the hardwired local area network, or LAN, computer access sailors need for everything from training to day-to-day operations.
"People don't understand everything is done on a computer network," Dungan said, adding that without robust access, ships in for repairs are "hamstrung."
"They wouldn't really be able to do anything," he said.
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