While the world embraced social distancing and self-isolating amid the spread of the coronavirus, the Military Sealift Command (MSC) required thousands of civilian mariners, or “civmars,” to stay on U.S. Navy ships, sharing tight quarters and cramped workspaces.
Many of the mariners complained of a lack of personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves, and feared that the Navy personnel and Defense Department contractors — who embarked and disembarked freely — could come aboard with an infection that would spread COVID-19 and re-create the misery that befell some cruise ships and military vessels at the beginning of the outbreak.
The “gangway up” order that stranded the civmars was issued on March 21 by Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer, commander of the MSC, and as of press time an end date had not been announced. According to accounts from social media and civmars who spoke to Professional Mariner, those affected had no chance to prepare for the extended time away from home. Some were on ships docked a few miles from their homes in port cities and were not even able to move their cars from parking garages.
The order has driven a wedge into the 50-year partnership between the Navy and the civilian workforce that labors within the MSC to replenish U.S. military vessels around the world. Three mariners’ unions have filed grievances with the command over the order, but to no avail.
“We are looking for some rationalization as for how an order just restricting civmars to ships is fair,” said Tracy Burke, a branch agent for the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA). “They are civilians and they have many constitutional rights that military members give up.”
The MSC did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In an email relaying Wettlaufer’s order, MSC Capt. Gabe Varela cited “the threat posed by the spread of COVID-19.” He called on ship captains to “cancel all current leave, and that liberty for your crew be restricted to the ship for all current and future port visits until the threat has been diminished or defeated.”
As weeks have passed into months, some frustrated civmars have resigned but can’t leave their jobs or ships without permission.
The MSC, a branch of the Navy, employs about 5,400 civilians. Since 1972, the Navy has relied on professional mariners to move cargo and personnel, a relationship that traditionally has been cozy, according to Dr. Sal Mercogliano, an associate professor of history at Campbell University.
“The Navy uses civilians because it frees up Navy (enlisted personnel) to be on combatant ships,” he said. Plus, it’s easier to rely on professional mariners than to train military personnel for some tasks.
Generally, civmars and Navy personnel work side by side with little friction, Mercogliano said, which is one reason the singling out of civmars for confinement on their ships has been such a shock.
“They wanted to be treated the same,” he said. “There is difference in pay and other things, but when it comes to safety, they don’t like to be treated differently.”
One confined civmar, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to concern that speaking out would affect his career, is communicating with other mariners online. The civmar said that those stuck on MSC ships have tied rags around their faces and pulled T-shirts over their noses as makeshift masks. They share cramped living quarters where social distancing is impossible. Many are anxious and uncertain about when they will be able to return home.
Another civmar said she quit in frustration after two years on the job, but her resignation has not been accepted, leaving her stranded and consigned to her work duties.
“I was planning on being there for my mom’s birthday,” she said. “I have not been there for her past four birthdays because of work. I blame myself for giving the Navy another chance to screw me over, but it’s life lessons. I’m done after this.”
The situation has created anxiety because of ships that became coronavirus hot spots in the early stages of the pandemic. Sailors of every type are aware of crises like those on USS Theodore Roosevelt, sidelined in Guam with 1,000 cases of COVID-19, and USNS Leroy Grumman, an MSC vessel in Boston with 30 contractors and 22 crewmembers infected. As positive tests mounted on these ships, the crews were stuck in quarantine, waiting and helpless. Civmars feel resigned to the situation, Burke said.
“Their free will has been taken away from them because other DOD (Department of Defense) employees can come and go and infect these mariners trapped on these vessels,” he said. “That’s what’s so frightening about incarcerating these folks on these ships.”
On May 15, Wettlaufer issued a letter denying the unions’ grievances, almost ensuring the matter will be decided in court.