Suicide Aboard Military Sealift Command Ship Prompts Unions to Call for End to “Gangways Up” Order

Mike Schuler
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August 3, 2020

File Photo: The Military Sealift Command dry cargo ammunition ship USNS Amelia Earhart (T-AKE-6). U.S. Navy Photo

The heads of the three unions representing Military Sealift Command civilian mariners are calling on MSC to reevaluate the “Gangways-Up” order as concerns mount over the mental health safety of the mariners.

In a July 29 letter to Admiral Michael A. Wettlauer, Commander of the Military Sealift Command, the president’s of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA), International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, and Seafarers International Union flagged “ongoing and increasingly grave concerns” regarding the mental health and well-being of seafarers.

The gangway up order is just one example of the strict measures that governments and the private sector are taking to slow the spread of COVID-19 among seafarers and prevent shipboard outbreaks that have a history of sidelining vessels for weeks.

“There is growing anger, frustration and despair throughout the fleet. People have a breaking point and many of these crewmembers are nearing it,” the letter said.

The letter specifically called attention to the recent tragic death of a seafarer aboard the USNS Amelia Earhart while deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. The Navy Times reported that a civilian mariner died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on June 22, citing a Navy source with knowledge of the incident. MSC, without commenting on the specific cause of death, has identified the victim as the ship’s Third Officer.

“The actual cause of the mariner’s actions may never be known, however, the ongoing and selective ‘Gangways up’ restrictions may have, in some part, contributed to this unnecessary and senseless act,” the letter stated. “We are genuinely worried that if restrictions are not eased, the likelihood of the shipboard emotional instability will increase. Further, the stress-related fatigue caused by the ‘Gangways Up’ restrictions could lead to safety and mission degradation and operational mishaps.

The gangway-up order was put into effect back on March 21 to combat the growing COVID-19 outbreak. The order required all civilian mariners working on MSC ships worldwide to stay aboard their ship and suspended crew shore leave. Despite the order, military workers have been permitted to come and go from ships without similar restrictions.

“Couple the disparate nature of the Gangways Up policy with the continuing crisis of overdue reliefs and you have potentially worse disasters waiting to happen on MSC-vessels all over the world. Waiting in-excess of 90 days for relief in some cases is contributing to the escalating anxiety and tensions aboard ships. The current situation is taking a terrible toll on the families of these mariners as well. The CIVMARS feel unsupported and abandoned,” the letter stated.

The letter continues to call on Admiral Wettlaufer to reevaluate the gangways up order and adopt “a more appropriate and reasonable leave and liberty policy”.

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