Monday, November 7, 2011

Malfunctioning toilets on the US Navy’s most modern ship threaten morale

November 7, 2011

After Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans in 2005, media outlets reported on the intolerable living conditions in the Louisiana Superdome, a structure never intended to be an evacuation shelter nor built to withstand Category 3 winds. The massive influx of evacuees to the “refuge of last resort” resorted to using boxes for toilets when the facilities in the Superdome were backed up beyond use.

Six years later, another deplorable living situation faces American citizens, all members of the United States Navy, one of the world’s most impressive military powers. Morale is declining and the health and safety of thousands of deployed military personnel is at stake.

My son is a career sailor who loves the Navy. He has worked as a mechanic on props, jets and helicopters and he just completed a three-year stint as recruiter. He plans to retire. He is currently deployed on the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), a Nimitz-class super carrier of the United States Navy. This ship is the temporary home for about 6,000 men and women who are serving their country – leaving behind their loved ones and the comforts of home. They all knew when they joined the Navy that life on any ship would be different, and adjustments are expected, but the current situation on this ship’s maiden cruise is unacceptable.

My son and members of his crew have reported some things that have made me dig deeper.
The Navy contracted to have a Vacuum Collection, Holding and Transfer system (VCHT) installed on the most modern ship in the 5th Fleet. This is the same type of vacuum-operated, human waste disposal system currently in use on cruise ships and airplanes. There have been problems with the system since the ship deployed, but the enlisted men and women feel no one cares, especially those in a position to make changes. The leaking vacuum system shuts down half of the ship’s toilets. Some problems are caused by members of the crew, as evidenced by the miscellaneous items found in the pipes while troubleshooting clogs. However, the majority of the problems stem from chronic vacuum failures, which forces the closure of multiple units.

Captain Brian “Lex” Luther, the commanding officer of the George H.W. Bush, ordered locks installed on the doors to the some of functioning toilets, forcing every sailor onboard to search for a useable toilet, sometimes taking up to half an hour. The head in one berthing was out of order for more than eight days. Sailors are complaining that the ship is unsanitary and has been in this state since the beginning of their deployment.

Yes, he ordered locks be  placed on the OPERATING heads. The ship’s company heads are the ones that are usually working, and those are the ones that are locked up…isolating the air wing.

The skipper proclaims over the shipboard public address circuit daily, “It’s a glorious day to be at sea!” It may indeed be a glorious day for him since he likely has a properly working toilet in his berthing. The men and women who are onboard this ship, doing their duty to serve their country, are complaining daily that there is a problem that needs to be resolved, but the skipper places the blame on them.

It is doubtful that the President for whom the ship is named has a clue how this “modern system” is affecting the morale of the enlisted personnel. If he did, he might demand his name be removed from the floating cesspool. As a taxpayer, I am demanding that our sailors be given the little comfort and luxury – nay – the necessity of working, sanitary toilets while they are required to be at sea for months at a time.

The official website for the USS George H.W. Bush states that its guiding principles are:
  • Like our namesake, we are professionals who serve our country with integrity.
  • We maintain our warfighting skills and fight as a team.
  • We improve the material condition of our ship.
  • We ensure GEORGE H.W. BUSH Sailors are set up for success.
  • We understand the importance of family readiness.
How can the sailors be set up for success if they can’t find a working toilet on the ship that claims to improve its material condition? If the men and women aboard the ship must search for working toilets because the one that worked earlier is now locked, how can they maintain their warfighting skills and fight as a team – especially if they are losing respect for their leader by the day? Perhaps the guiding principle may be to understand the importance of family readiness, but how ready can the sailors be when their basic needs for basic body functions cannot be met? Where is the integrity in professionals who place locks on toilets rather than making the necessary repairs?

Check your sea legs before arguing that our Naval military personnel have a better or easier life than do their land-deployed counterparts. Sailors who have been attached to Marine squadrons that deployed to desert areas know that digging a hole is easier than what they are currently forced to do onboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Also, check your air space. Nearly one third of all military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are Navy personnel and Navy pilots provide valuable air support while ships such as the USS George H.W Bush maintain the integrity of the land deployments from sea. This isn’t a debate over which branch of the military is more disadvantaged. It is a concern about the living conditions aboard the ship known as “the centerpiece of the forces necessary for forward presence.”

The taxpayers should be as outraged over the living conditions of the men and women onboard the USS George H.W Bush as they were to discover how the survivors of Hurricane Katrina had been forced to endure their hardships. Six years have passed since the Superdome was evacuated and the people lived there without fully functioning toilets for several days. The sailors on the USS George H.W Bush have been suffering the indignity of locked toilets for nearly six months. Don’t make our sailors find boxes for bathrooms as Katrina evacuees did inside the Superdome.

I am as patriotic as any Navy Mom could be. I come from a long line of military men and I love my country. I love life! But, when I hear that our military enlisted personnel must endure life for months - not just days, but months in such conditions, I shudder. All the glorious days at sea, all the steel beach picnics and great smiling faces for recruiting posters bring tears to my eyes, but nothing like the tears I have shed for my son and his team members who can't even find an open, operable head.

When was the last time YOU had to search half an hour to find a toilet you could use?  It's time to fix the toilets on the USS George H.W. Bush. We don't know if our sons and daughters will come home from this deployment on schedule or if world events will keep them out on the ocean longer. All I know is it's time to flush!

Go Navy!

On Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011, my son placed this suggestion in the ship's virtual suggestion box - one of many regarding the situation:


I understand that you are looking for your “smoking gun” in regards to who is flushing non-human items down the toilets, but how far is this going to go? All of the heads forward of 138 are secured while troubleshooting a vacuum loss, and it seems that all of the heads aft of 138 are locked. Is the air wing being punished? Every squadron head is wide open for all hands use, but the heads that belong to the ship’s departments are “reserved” for ship’s personnel only. The VFA-87 head at 03-21 has been down for the last 3 days. The locking of the heads has not only created a major inconvenience, but is creating a rift between the air wing and ships company. One thing has been accomplished, the talk about going home and this deployment being almost over have all but ceased. All I hear anyone talking about anymore is how bad the situation is with the heads. Thank you for your time.

AM1 Frakes

The problem is still unresolved and they are no where near land. The toilet in his berthing was out for 8 days prior to and after they arrived at Dubai.

A reporter for Navy Times has contacted me about this story and will be contacting my son, soon. There IS hope.