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Tell us: Toilet troubles
Have you experienced this on your ship? Send an email to staff writer Joshua Stewart about how health and morale were affected.
The Navy's newest aircraft carrier has a messy problem. Since deploying in May, the Norfolk, Va.-based carrier George H.W. Bush has grappled with widespread toilet outages, at times rendering the entire ship without a single working head.
But it's no laughing matter. Sailors tell of combing the ship for up to an hour to find a place to do their business, if they can find one at all. Others have resorted to urinating in showers or into the industrial sinks in their work stations. Some men are using bottles and emptying the contents over the giant ship's side, while some women are holding it in for so long that they are developing health problems, according to sources on the ship.
The sailors blame the ship's vacuum system. But the Navy is blaming sailors for flushing "inappropriate material" down the toilets.
The ship, commissioned in January 2009, is wrapping up a deployment in the Persian Gulf. Three sailors who spoke to Navy Times on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media said the problem has been persistent at least since Bush began its first deployment in May. Throughout its deployment, there have been at least two times when all 423 commodes in the ship's 130 heads went offline, the sailors said. More often, they said, all heads either forward or aft of the middle of the ship have gone out of service, or clusters of heads scattered through different departments have been shut down.
The problems were first reported by Mary Brotherton, a blogger and mother of a Bush sailor.
The issue, according to sailors and the ship's internal newsletter, is the vacuum system that moves waste through the ship's pipes. The system breaks down with little warning, making it impossible to flush, they said. This forces toilets and urinals throughout the ship to go offline as crews examine the carrier's 250 miles of pipe to figure out what's wrong and restore vacuum pressure. One shipwide breakdown required one department to work a 35-hour stretch with no rest to fix, according to the January edition of the carrier's newsletter The Avenger.
Complicating the matter, some working heads are secured with a lock, letting only sailors who know the combination inside, the sailors said.
So far there's no backup plan for when the system goes offline, the sailors said. Sailors report the ship does not have portable toilets. Nor are wag bags — sealable plastic sacks designed to hold human waste — available for use until heads are fixed. Given the circumstances, whenever the heads on the ship break, the 5,000 sailors onboard must either ignore nature's call or find inventive ways to relieve themselves until they can find a proper bathroom.
The Navy, in a written statement, acknowledged problems with the system since the ship was delivered in May 2009. Sailors have spent more than 10,000 man hours addressing the toilets' vacuum system on this deployment, averaging roughly 25 calls per week for commode problems. Most problems were fixed within 24 hours, with some requiring just a few minutes of work, said a statement from Naval Air Force Atlantic, adding that the ship had a "94 percent availability of commodes" throughout the deployment.
AIRLANT said most issues occurred when inappropriate materials were flushed down the toilets. Sailors onboard the ship said that everything from feminine hygiene products to clothes have been unclogged from the network of pipes. When used as intended, the system works well and most problems can be fixed in minutes, AIRLANT said.
The statement also acknowledged that the system is different from older systems "in that disruption in one head can impact a broader area. A vacuum outage affects every commode in one half of the ship and is not department- or squadron-specific."
The contractor that supplied the system, Evac, did not make a representative available as of Monday afternoon after three queries from Navy Times over six days. According to the company's website, Evac also worked on the amphibious transport dock San Antonio's toilet system and systems for luxury cruise liners. The Navy statement said the system is also installed aboard Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and other San Antonio-class ships, but it was unclear if those systems were installed by Evac or whether any of those ships have had problems.
Sailors said the head issue is a major problem on the $6.2 billion carrier. While it has provided countless opportunities to make jokes related to bodily functions, they said, it has also hurt morale. Some sailors are limiting their food and fluid intake, risking dehydration. Others have ignored nature's call for so long that they've developed urinary tract infections. The problem has made it tougher for sailors to keep the ship combat-ready, they said.
The Navy statement did not address reports of sickness.
Some are taking extra showers when they need to urinate. Women are finding working men's heads and putting a sentry at the door. Or they'll use the industrial sinks in their workspaces. Men are sneaking onto catwalks to surreptitiously relieve themselves without getting busted by a master-at-arms on patrol, searching for sailors using anywhere but a head as a bathroom.
"If you violate a direct order, you go to mast. We had one seaman go thus far," one chief told Navy Times.
An AIRLANT spokesman confirmed that one sailor received non-judicial punishment for "urinating on a sponson."
Some men have taken to urinating into bottles and dumping the contents over the side — a potentially messy practice that can soil the side of the ship or the hangar deck, aircraft or fellow sailors, depending on how it catches the wind.
"It's certainly more risk-free than standing and peeing on the catwalks, but still it's ridiculous," a second class petty officer said.
If possible, sailors will use one of the operational heads, but it takes extra work to find one, the second class said. When the urge strikes, you have to get the gouge on the location of a working head — hopefully it won't be on the far side of the 1,094-foot-long carrier. When you find one that's working, there's often a line to get inside. As they wait, sailors do a quick survey of who has reached their physical limit, and sailors who need to go the most get bumped to the front of the queue.
"We all assess who is going to go in their pants first and set the lines according to that," the second class said.