The U.S. Navy is confronting any number of strategic challenges as it seeks to rein in costs and cope with an aging fleet of ships and planes.
And, then, on a new ship, there’s the issue of the toilets.
The USS George H.W. Bush, built at a cost of $6.2 billion and deployed on its first combat mission only last spring, has experienced chronic plumbing problems for months, with the faltering of its vacuum-based system repeatedly leading to toilet outages.
Now, what was ostensibly a comical issue has turned into a quality-of-life issue, not to mention something of an Internet meme.
In the old days, perhaps no one would have been the wiser about a problem with the toilets, or “heads,” as they’re known aboard Navy vessels. Aircraft carriers, after all, would go to sea for months at a time and families would be lucky to get a couple of letters from their sailor.
But in the Internet era, what happens at sea does not stay at sea.
Last week, the mother of a sailor aboard the Bush, a Norfolk-based carrier, fired off a post on her blog, complaining that the toilet problem had persisted because the vacuum system was malfunctioning. The independent Navy Times picked up on the story, and detailed reports of some sailors searching for upwards of an hour for a functioning toilet, plus some other very unpleasant business.
Since then, the Navy has acknowledged the problems but insisted they are being caused primarily by sailors flushing what shouldn’t be flushed: shirts, underwear, eggs, cutlery, among other items.
In an interview, the commander of the carrier, Capt. Brian E. Luther, said his engineers have logged 10,000 hours on the current deployment to the Persian Gulf trying to address toilet issues. Most of the problems, he said, have been dealt with quickly, with little reason to believe that there have been hour-long searches for a functioning facility.
Sailors speaking with the Navy Times have made the situation sound more dire, and, according to an article earlier this year in the carrier’s internal newsletter (a profile of a maintenance technician headlined “The King of the Throne”), there was at least one instance when a clog caused all of the heads on the forward half of the ship, and then the rear, to back up.
Whatever the case, Luther said the now-public fiasco over the toilets has painted an unfair picture of life aboard the George H.W. Bush. He dismissed reports of health problems related to the toilet outages.
His sailors are content, he said, adding: “They’re excited about coming home.”
Read more stories from around the world