When sailors deploy on USS George Washington, they will have a ‘good vibe’ recreation and gaming center

When the USS George Washington pushes off the Norfolk pier Thursday, it will deploy with a new rest and recreation den installed on board as part of a servicewide effort to improve sailor quality of life.

Three rooms just off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier allow sailors to take a break from ship life in a dimly lit social environment with games and TVs similar to an alcohol-free sports bar. Nestled in the heart of the space, a neon blue sign glows scripted letters: “The GW.”

The Washington is one of four aircraft carriers to be outfitted with a USO Afloat Center, including East Coast-based ships USS George H.W. Bush and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan. But the Washington’s den is the first of its kind, officials said, as it is the only one in the Navy fleet to have finishing touches, including flooring and painted walls, to give an off-the-ship vibe.

“It was about reaching a goal set by leadership to leave the ship better than they found it,” said Cissy Fish, regional operations and development manager for USO.

The center opened Feb. 5 ahead of the Washington’s first deployment in nearly a decade and before its planned homeport shift from Naval Station Norfolk to Yokosuka, Japan. The Washington leaves Thursday for South America, where it will circumnavigate the continent over the next several months, officials said. The carrier will then stop in San Diego, California, before transiting to Japan, where it will be the forward-deployed carrier later this year.

The Washington was previously homeported in Japan from 2008 to 2015, coming to Naval Station Norfolk in December 2015.

From August 2017 to May 2023, a brutal mid-life refueling and maintenance overhaul kept the warship at Newport News Shipbuilding. During more than six years in the shipyard, there were nine suicides among the Washington crew, including three in one week in April 2022. The suicides sparked a massive effort to change the way the Navy treats sailors experiencing mental health crises and improve sailors’ quality of life.

“This space is designed to meet sailors where they are and with what they love,” Fish said.

The initial outfitting of the center was a six-figure investment, with additional costs incurred over time to maintain it, USO officials said. The electronics, flooring, paint, lighting and furniture were provided by the USO through donations and sponsors. Roughly 200 sailors volunteered to remodel the space, transforming it in about three weeks from a standard steel room to what it is today.

“We wanted sailors to walk in here and feel like they are not on the ship, even for a few minutes,” said Chaplain Marlin Williams, from the ship’s ministry department.

A mock fireplace, flanked by dozens of books, lures sailors into the den. Oversized plush chairs and couches adorned with colorful throw pillows are strategically placed to maximize seating and comfort. The heart of the den is lined with five large flat-screen televisions and gaming consoles. Vinyl wood flooring, mood lighting and homages to President George Washington — such as bobble heads and video game-themed takes on Revolutionary War artwork — are throughout the three conjoined rooms.

Before, the space was a typical library and media resource center found aboard Navy ships — white steel walls, harsh florescent lighting and nondescript office furniture bolted to the floor.

“It was very ‘shippy,'” Williams said with a laugh.

Unique to the Washington’s den are two soundproof phone booths. Sailors can rent out the booths for 20-minute increments to call home. The booths have been booked days in advance ever since the center opened, ship leaders said. The USO is working to install the phone booths in every afloat center, Fish said.

“This is the only privacy that probably 95% of these sailors have to communicate with their families,” Fish said.

The Washington’s den is open from 8:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. each day but the ministry department, which oversees the management of the space, is aiming to keep it open 24 hours a day during the deployment. According to Williams, more than 5,000 sailors checked into the den during a period of 18 days at sea. Of those, he estimated around 3,800 reported they were there “to chill.”

That is exactly why Petty Officer Lloyd Heggenberger stopped by during a recent workday. The damage controlman was still wearing his uniform red coveralls when he plopped down on a couch in the den.

“You can come in here and forget about anything Navy-related for however long of a break you got,” Heggenberger said.

Heggenberger, 33, has been assigned to the Washington for eight years. Previously, he said, sailors were stuck in their workspace all day, with nowhere to disconnect from work during breaks. After shifts, he said it was common for junior sailors to be up at 2 a.m. to use a computer to contact their family because that was the only time a computer would be available. Since the den opened, Heggenberger and fellow sailor and mass communication specialist, Petty Officer Logan Ottinger, said the crew members are more lively.

“We live on a ship. We work on a ship. It can get monotonous. But in here, the lights are nice, TVs are going, people are playing games. It is a good vibe,” Ottinger, 20, said.

Related Articles

The USO, Fish said, has plans to create afloat centers on at least four other aircraft carriers by the year’s end. Next in line is the USS Harry S. Truman, which is slated to deploy later this year. The Bush’s den will also be redone to bring it up to par with the Washington’s center.

The goal is to expand the rest and recreation centers to smaller warships, such as destroyers and amphibious ships, Fish said.

As the ship spends more time at sea, Williams said he expects more sailors to flock to the entertainment den.

“The further we are away from the pier and the longer we are away from the pier, sailors are disconnected from their family and from the normalcy of life,” Williams said. “That breeds a necessity for a space like this.”

Caitlyn Burchett, caitlyn.burchett@virginiamedia.com