Sailor’s father speaks out after 7 sailors commit suicide on USS George Washington. “Hotel Rwanda” hero’s family files $400m torture suit in US.
Sailor’s father speaks out after 7 sailors commit suicide on USS George Washington
Since 2017, the Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington has been undergoing an overhaul at Newport News Shipyard in Virginia. While most of the sailors posted to the ship go home after completing their work shifts, many sailors who have no family nearby or onshore housing have to remain on the ship. This means working 12-hour shifts, then being deprived of sleep due to construction noise. Often, there is no hot water or even electricity.
Some sailors resort to sleeping in their cars. One of those was master-at-arms seaman recruit Xavier Sandor. Sandor’s father John, himself a Navy veteran, knew that the grueling hours and lack of support was taking a toll on his son. But he didn’t realize just how dire the situation was until it was too late. John said that every other weekend, when his son was able to drive to his family home in Shelton, CT, he was always reluctant to return.
Xavier was posted to the George Washington when he was fresh out of boot camp. He had only been aboard her three months when he took his life. And he was not the first Washington sailor to do so that week, nor even the second. Within one week in early April, three George Washington sailors had committed suicide. That makes seven suicides since 2019, and an unknown number of attempted suicides.
Lack of support
John had urged Xavier to ask for help. “He’d say, ‘Dad, they don’t give a f—. They don’t care.’ That was always his response to me,” John says.
Other George Washington sailors who’d asked for support were similarly ridiculed and dismissed. A year ago, Hannah Crisostomo, an aviation boatswain’s mate handler, swallowed 196 pain relievers in an attempt to end her own life. She survived after 8 days on life support. Prior to her attempt, Crisostomo had asked for help and received none. Crisostomo says, “command pushes you to that point”. Unlike a typical employee, Crisostomo’s 5-year service contract means, “There is no putting in your two-week notice and getting out”.
Nautica Robinson, another George Washington sailor who attempted suicide, likewise blamed the ship’s “toxic leadership”. “They just threw us back in the environment, like our attempted suicides didn’t happen,” Robinson said.
“You’re not in a foxhole”
That dismissiveness was evident even when the Navy attempted damage control. After the cluster of suicides in April, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith visited the carrier to address sailors’ concerns about the situation. He admitted the service should have done a better job of “managing your expectations” about the assignment.
Smith told them: “I hear your concerns and you should always raise them. But you have to do so with reasonable expectations and then understanding what … what this is like. What you’re not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing”.
He went on to say the sailors’ hardships were all part of military service. “When someone walks by you at Starbucks when you’re in uniform and says ‘thank you for your service,’ this is one of the things that they’re thanking you for,” Smith said.
Too little, too late
It was only after the three suicides in April that the Navy opened a formal investigation into conditions aboard ship. The Navy has also since assigned additional mental health and support resources to the ship. Xavier Sandor’s father John says that if the Navy had taken these steps after the first suicide, his son would still be alive.
“There’s going to be a time when my sadness turns to anger,” he said. “I won’t let his death go in vain.”
“Maybe his death can change the Navy,” he added. “If we could keep this from happening to another sailor’s family, that’s what I want to do.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
“Hotel Rwanda” hero’s family files $400m torture suit in US
During the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina sheltered 1,200 Hutus and Tutsis from the war between the two tribes. The 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” starring Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina was based on those events. Since then, Rusesabagina has found himself at odds with the ruling party in Rwanda and has openly supported armed uprisings against it. Rusesabagina had been living in exile in the US for years when Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame orchestrated his kidnapping from Dubai.
Rusesabagina has since been found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to 25 years in prison. His family have filed suit in a US court seeking $400 million in damages from the Rwandan government. The suit calls Rusesabagina’s trial a “sham” and alleges that he suffered torture and was prevented from communicating with counsel and his family.
The Alien Tort Statute allows foreign nationals to sue other foreign nationals or governments in US courts. In the past, plaintiffs have been successful in using the statute in cases of torture and other crimes against humanity. The Alien Tort Statute does not enforce criminal penalties.
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