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Thousands of Civilians Stuck on Navy Ships Fear COVID-19 Exposure

Merchant mariners in the Military Sealift Command must choose to risk exposure to COVID-19 or lose their jobs
Sailors and civil service mariners heave in line, preparing to lower a small boat from the USS Frank Cable (AS 40). (Photo: U.S. Navy)

This piece was copublished with The Daily Beast.

Civilian Navy personnel say they are effectively trapped on ships against their will, largely without masks and other material to protect them against the spreading coronavirus. A commander's 11th-hour edict has restricted them to the tight confines of their vessels, they complain, even as the coronavirus is tearing through the service, and swamping its top brass in turmoil over how to manage the crisis.

Civilian Navy personnel say they are effectively trapped on ships against their will, largely without masks and other material to protect them against the spreading coronavirus.

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) spoke with more than a dozen civilian mariners, who said they’d been confined on their ships for weeks as military personnel and contractors walk freely on and off the ships, potentially exposing them to the virus.

With more cases to date than any other branch of the military, the Navy is struggling to cope with outbreaks, including on an aircraft carrier where 969 were infected, and a botched response that ended the career of the service’s highest-ranked civilian. Confined to small spaces within ships, submarines, and other vessels, the force is likely particularly susceptible to outbreaks.

The civilian mariners who told POGO they’d been ordered to stay on their ships are part of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. If U.S. military supplies and cargo are moving by boat, the command is in charge of it. The command operates 125 ships of its own, including the Navy’s two floating hospitals, to replenish military vessels and provide other support—“anywhere in the world, under any condition, 24/7, 365 days a year,” its mission states. Eighty percent of the workforce that run these ships is civilian, over 5,400 strong. Though they’re often in behind-the-scenes roles, the merchant mariners’ mission has been called the U.S. military’s “Achilles’ heel.”

Military Sealift Command confirmed to POGO that five civilian mariners had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Four of the mariners were aboard the command’s ships. Two of the mariners are normally assigned to the USNS Leroy Grumman, which is currently undergoing maintenance in Boston, according to the command. The Navy is conducting contact tracing to try to determine who had close contact with the mariners.

In late March, Military Sealift Command crews worldwide got a shocking message. With little time to prepare, the workers were barred from leaving the ships, in what is known as a “gangway up” order. Some mariners had less than eight hours to get their lives in order before an indefinite detention aboard the ships in order to halt the spread of COVID-19. But there was a catch. The order only applied to the civil service mariners, or CIVMARs.

Thousands of merchant mariners are being held on Navy ships in ports around the world, unable to leave, even for a walk on a pier, for fear of losing their jobs. After a message came through POGO’s COVID-19 tip line, over a dozen merchant mariners spoke to POGO, saying they haven’t seen their families in over a month, even though many live a short drive from the port.

The surprise order from the Military Sealift Command’s Norfolk-based commander—reported here for the first time—barred the civilian mariners from leaving their ships under any circumstances. Yet hundreds of other personnel have been free to come and go, potentially exposing themselves to the virus onshore and then coming aboard and exposing those confined by the order.

The order was intended to protect civilian personnel aboard the vessels from the spreading pandemic, the commander wrote in an email to senior Military Sealift Command leaders. But the virus quickly came aboard some Navy ships anyway.

Effectively trapped onboard their vessels, many say they lack masks and other sufficient protection from COVID-19, and are unable to get basic necessities. And there is no end in sight to their confinement. Mariners report that morale is at an “all-time low” and that there have been dozens of resignations, although Military Sealift Command would not confirm any numbers.

“The intent of my order is not to be overbearing, but rather to protect our CIVMARs and the precious capability they deliver to the joint force,” the officer who issued the order, Rear Admiral Michael A. Wettlaufer, explained in the email to senior Military Sealift Command leaders March 24, which was shared with POGO.

Sailors and Military Sealift Command civil service mariners heave fuel lines aboard the U.S. 6th Fleet flagship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) on October 28, 2013.
(Photo: U.S. Navy / MC2 Mike Wright)

“There is basically no way to adhere to social distancing on the ship”

To assuage civilian mariners’ concerns over contracting COVID-19, Wettlaufer shared tips on how they can stay safe. “The most effective tactics are social distancing and minimizing contacts,” Wettlaufer informed his subordinates in his March 24 email, “to limit the opportunity for exposure to the virus while on the pier or when visiting personnel are performing any functions aboard.”

A review of the comments posted to a Facebook group for employees of the Military Sealift Command shows exposure to the coronavirus wasn’t the only serious concern provoked by the order that barred civilian Navy personnel from leaving their ships. Because of the short notice, mariners were unable to buy basic necessities.

“Ship masters have the authority in coordination with MSC Area Commanders to accommodate requests for non-liberty exceptions such as medical visits and shipboard logistics including trips to obtain health and comfort items. These exceptions are being granted regularly,” Military Sealift Command told POGO in response to questions about supply shortages. But based on numerous comments posted publicly and interviews POGO conducted with mariners, shortages remain an issue.

One Facebook user asked the group how women could acquire menstrual products, which weren’t available on the ships. Her concern was echoed by other civilian mariners POGO spoke with, who are on ships around the world. According to two mariners aboard the USNS Medgar Evers, a mariner was disciplined for walking down the gangplank to meet her mother, who was delivering tampons, which were not available on the ship. The Medgar Evers is docked at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia.

A mariner on a ship in Europe, who asked not to be named for fears of retaliation, said that she was unable to get the products she needed, until she had a “meltdown” and a concession was made. “It was one of the most degrading experiences I’ve had to endure” the mariner told POGO.

But the civilian mariners told POGO that these tactics were impossible in the ships’ cramped quarters where they’re confined.

“There is basically no way to adhere to social distancing on the ship,” a mariner aboard the USNS Medgar Evers told POGO, “unless you're in your own room at which time you are still at the mercy of the ship’s ventilation system that can spread the virus through the air.” That mariner asked not to be named, fearing retribution if he was identified.

“There’s no safety if the contractors are coming on board,” said Markus Hyman, a civilian mariner on the USNS Puerto Rico. “Everybody is stressed out and paranoid because we have the contractors coming on board, but we’re stuck.” The ship is docked in Hampton Roads, Virginia, near Hyman’s home.

Hyman said he has two children at home, a 6-year-old and 3-year-old, but due to the order has not been able to leave his ship and take the 13-minute drive to see them. He said his fiancée was forced to take a leave of absence from her job to take care of them alone.

“Our goal is not to eliminate risk but to take reasonable and prudent measures to reduce risk. This order eliminates the risk of our personnel being exposed to COVID-19 while off the ship,” a Military Sealift Command spokesperson said in response to POGO’s questions about the order. “We are concerned about the safety and well-being of all of our mariners. Our aggressive mitigation strategies are designed to prevent the spread of infection onboard our vessels, which protects everyone.”

If you want to reduce risk, you have to separate people. The crew is less likely to become infected if at their own homes than if congregated together.

Dr. George Rutherford III, an epidemiologist and director of the Prevention and Public Health Group at the University of California, San Francisco

But experts POGO consulted agreed with the mariners we spoke to: Unless all of the ship’s personnel were under the same restrictions, the measure is unlikely to be effective.

“If you want to reduce risk, you have to separate people. The crew is less likely to become infected if at their own homes than if congregated together,” said Dr. George Rutherford III, an epidemiologist and director of the Prevention and Public Health Group at the University of California, San Francisco.

“If the crew are not permitted to leave the ship then it makes little sense to allow others to enter the ship and have contact with the crew,” said Dr. David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor in the environmental and occupational health department at George Washington University, who served as assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Obama administration.

Making Masks Out of Rags

But it doesn’t take an epidemiologist to be skeptical of the order to stay on the ships. Many of the mariners bound by the order told POGO the failure of common sense it represents is evident.

Comment on a public Facebook group for employees of Military Sealift Command

“So let me get [t]his straight,” one person identifying themself as a civilian mariner posted on April 18 to a public Facebook group for employees of Military Sealift Command. “CIVMARs are restricted to their various vessels, But [sic] Navy personnel and contractors can come in and out the same vessels in which CIVMARs are been confined to. Please tell again that you're trying to protect CIVMARs from COVID 19.”

Image posted on a public Facebook group for employees of Military Sealift Command

Another serious issue raised by the order: mariners’ access to medication. “Several mariners with chronic conditions are unable to get refills of their medications,” one Military Sealift Command official from the USNS Washington Chambers, anchored off of Japan, told POGO.

According to the official onboard, who feared retribution if named, the ship’s medical officer had also sounded the alarm at the lack of personal protective equipment on board, the lack of test kits onboard the ship, and the fact that there was no indication of when testing would be available.

Almost three weeks after issuing his gangway-up order, Wettlaufer disseminated Navy guidance that all personnel should wear face masks. That apparently didn’t go very well, either.

Bobby Freeman, a 14-year Military Sealift Command veteran currently aboard the USNS Medgar Evers, said two weeks after the face mask guidance came in, he was provided one paper mask, but by now he and many others on his ship have resorted to using T-shirts or rags to cover their faces. “This is the worst experience I’ve ever had with Military Sealift Command,” said Freeman.

Another mariner, who asked to remain anonymous, aboard the Medgar Evers told POGO his ship wasn’t given any personal protective equipment until April 22, a month after the gangway-up order. That mariner also said he believes the Medgar Evers has no testing kits on board, something he thinks about “all the time.” Without testing, and with frequent visitors onboard the ship, it is impossible to know who needs to be quarantined.

“As we are finding with all institutions including hospitals, industry and government, on-hand supplies of PPE [personal protective equipment] varied based on location, organization and need,” Military Sealift Command told POGO in an email. “All MSC ships have the core Medical Equipment Allowance List items on board, which includes N95 masks and protective gloves and cleaning supplies to enable them to conduct enhanced sanitation. MSC continues to order and execute prioritized delivery of PPE to afloat and ashore units,” the email said.

U.S. Navy Civil Service mariners assigned to the Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Carson City (T-EPF 7) heave line as the ship arrives in Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire, July 15, 2019.
(Photo: U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ford Williams)

"Imprisoned to the ship"

After several mariners aboard the USS Mount Whitney reached out to Senator Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD) office with their concerns over Wettlaufer’s gangway-up order, his office launched an inquiry.

The ship, based in Italy—one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic—locked down its civilian crew on March 21, yet allowed Navy personnel to come and go. Three days later, Wettlaufer’s gangway-up order came down, and two days after that, the Navy announced that a sailor aboard the Whitney tested positive.

“The military members have been able to come and go as directed to and from the ship or from their residence in the local area,” said Gustavo Luna, chief cook on the Whitney. Luna, who told POGO that civilians were “imprisoned to the ship,” described the vessel’s crew as shocked and confused at the sudden drastic measures that applied only to the civilians.

In its response to Van Hollen’s inquiry, the Navy said civilian mariners aboard the Whitney are under the command of Military Sealift Command, while the sailors are under the command of the Navy’s Sixth Fleet, and are not bound by Wettlaufer’s gangway-up order. The Navy reiterated that the order would stay in place “until further notice and to the extent possible.”

In its statement to Van Hollen, the Navy said that the conflicting measures that allow sailors to leave the ship will keep civilians onboard safer, because sailor sleeping quarters are communal and would not allow for social distancing if all sailors and civilians were quarantined on the ship. However, the Navy’s statement also notes that current guidance allows sailors “to continue to reside in their personal residences and to shop for groceries and other necessities.”

"A very serious abuse of authority"

After an unsuccessful negotiation with Military Sealift Command management, the three unions representing civilian mariners filed a formal grievance with the Navy on April 16, the text of which was shared with POGO.

The unions had previously asked management to agree to pay confined mariners an additional “liberty restriction pay,” but the command refused.

“CIVMARS are expected to go above and beyond what is expected of all other federal employers on a daily basis,” reads the April 16 grievance, filed by the Seafarers International Union, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, and the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots. “They and their families make selfless sacrifices during long, dangerous deployments to remote parts of the world, in belligerent, hostile waters. They should not be expected to endure an arbitrary and capricious deprivation of liberty resulting from a very serious abuse of authority,” the unions wrote.

If the restriction was genuinely intended to safeguard against the virus, every worker aboard ship would be restricted, not just CIVMARS.

from a formal grievance filed with the Navy from three unions representing civil mariners

“If the restriction was genuinely intended to safeguard against the virus, every worker aboard ship would be restricted, not just CIVMARS,” the unions wrote in a joint statement to POGO.

The unions gave Wettlaufer a deadline of May 15 to respond to the grievance. If he fails to respond, or if the unions find his response unsatisfactory, they will enter a lengthy legal process that could take months and eventually land in federal district court.

“All of us are professional Seaman and loyal employees of the U.S. Government, yet we are being treated no better than incarcerated felons,” a senior officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told POGO.

In the meantime, civilian mariners told POGO they expect to be stuck aboard their vessels, short on supplies, and hoping the virus doesn’t find its way onboard.

POGO’s Justin Rood contributed to this article.