The courage of navy captain Brett Crozier

Any of us who served in the military know the saying, "you can fall on your sword, but you can only do it once." Once you’re dead, you are out of the game and can no longer exert influence. 

Such was the story of Ajax in Homer’s Iliad, who fell on his sword after being disgraced. It’s also the story of Captain Brett Crozier, the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt who fell on his sword for the sake of his sailors. He sent out a memorandum pleading for help to care for them. He may not have known that his act would end his career. He may have naively felt that his bosses shared his concern over the health and welfare of the sailors. But the acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly fired Crozier anyway. 

Modly expressed a loss of confidence in Crozier for improprieties in sending out emails and notifying senior authorities: "The letter was sent over non-secure, unclassified email even though that ship possesses some of the most sophisticated communications and encryption equipment in the fleet…". For Secretary Modly it seems that following administrative procedures trumps life and death. This isn’t the first time Modly has demonstrated a shocking lack of judgment. Last year he dismissed a review of Chief Warrant Officer Edward Gallagher and three officers from the SEALs following well-supported evidence of war crimes.

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Crozier penned a thoughtful, objective letter describing the dangers to the health of the sailors on the aircraft carrier. As his letter states at the outset, “…(i)f required the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT would embark all assigned Sailors, set sail, and be ready to fight and beat any adversary that dares challenge the U.S. or our allies…However, we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily…”

Time is of the essence with the coronavirus pandemic.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt accumulated over 100 sailors with the infection in a short time and were dangerously exposing the other 5000 on the ship. COVID-19 can be lethal, quickly, and we have minimal information on effective treatments, no drugs, and no vaccines. The captain justifiably prioritized the lives of the men and women he commanded. 

A competent career Naval officer would be familiar with the history of disease and illness degrading readiness. Just in the tenure of Captain Crozier’s career, from 1996 to 2019, there have been repeated episodes of epidemics on half a dozen navy ships involving hundreds of sailors. 

The outbreaks included tuberculosis, respiratory illness, pneumonia, influenza, and a mumps-like illness. Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries No time to be selling arms to the Philippines Pentagon considers cutting coronavirus quarantines to 10 days MORE issued guidance on COVID-19 in early March that generated confusion and controversy. A Department of Defense (DOD) spokesperson stated that the Esper had “…directed commanders to take all force health protection measures and then notify their chain of command when actions are taken…” The DOD disputed a story that he had asked “…combatant commanders based overseas to check in with Pentagon leadership before making any coronavirus-related decisions that could contradict President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America MORE’s messaging on the illness…” None of this makes sense, in light of the action against Captain Crozier. That the DOD and the U.S. navy had not prepared for the impact of a pandemic knowing the history and after being alerted by mid-January is alarming. 

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In this cloudy political climate, Captain Crozier asked to take protective action for his sailors. We have learned that he too has tested positive for coronavirus and started showing symptoms before being removed. He has faced the perils of the illness for himself and the sailors that trusted in them and took bold action. Having fallen on his sword, Brett Crozier deserves acclaim as a hero.

Stephen N. Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired army brigadier general, serves on the executive boards of The Center for Ethics & the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and is an adjunct professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveXen

Jonathan D. Moreno teaches medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven but Nobody Wants to Die: Bioethics and the Transformation of Health Care in America."