Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with coronavirus outbreak

The captain of an aircraft carrier struggling with a coronavirus outbreak has been relieved from command after a letter he penned pleading for help leaked to the media.

“Today at my direction the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved of command,” acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announced Thursday at a Pentagon briefing.

“I have no doubt in my mind that Capt. Crozier did what he thought was in the best interest of the safety and well being of his crew. Unfortunately it did the opposite,” Modly added, saying it panicked families of sailors on board and gave information about the ship’s capabilities to America’s adversaries. “In my judgment, relieving him of command was in the best interest of the United States Navy and the nation in this time when the nation needs the Navy to be strong and confident in the face of adversity.”

Modly said there was no pressure from the White House to fire Crozier and that Defense Secretary Mark Esper supported the decision.

In a brief statement alongside Modly, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said he supported Modly’s decision.

“Make no mistake, nobody cares more about our sailors and those aboard the Theodore Roosevelt than our leadership in the Navy,” Gilday said. “Our sailors deserve the best leadership that we can absolutely provide.”

Crozier wrote a letter to Navy leaders that was obtained and published by the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, in which he warned of dire consequences if most of the sailors on Roosevelt aren’t evacuated.

Modly, who noted the Chronicle is the captain’s hometown paper, said he does not know if Crozier is the one who leaked it, but that he sent the letter to dozens of people and therefore didn’t do his responsibility to ensure it wasn’t leaked.

“It was copied to 20 or 30 other people. That’s just not acceptable. He did not take care and what that did is it created a little bit of a panic on the ship,” Modly said. “And at the same time, the families here in the United States were panicked about the reality.”

As of Thursday, 114 sailors on board the Roosevelt had tested positive for COVID-19. The 4,800-crew ship has been docked in Guam since last week while the entire crew is tested for the virus.

In his letter, Crozier pleaded in stark terms for permission to evacuate all but 10 percent of the crew from the Roosevelt, where he said it was impossible to properly isolate and quarantine sailors to stop a growing coronavirus outbreak.

“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” Crozier wrote. “If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”

Modly shot back Thursday that “while we may not be at war in a traditional sense, neither are we truly at peace.”

“We all understand and cherish our responsibilities and, frankly, our love for all of our people in uniform, but to allow those emotions to color our judgment when communicating the current operational picture can at best create unnecessary confusion, and at worst, provide an incomplete picture of American combat readiness to our adversaries,” Modly said.

After Crozier’s letter leaked, Navy officials announced they would offload 2,700 sailors by Friday.

Modly asserted Thursday plans were already in place for to address the outbreak before Crozier’s letter became public, arguing the leak gave a false impression that the plan was a response to the memo.

“The captain’s actions made his sailors, their families and many in the public believe that his letter was the only reason help from our larger Navy family was forthcoming, which was hardly the case,” Modly said.

Modly also said Crozier’s comments to Navy leaders in other conversations were not as dire as the ones in his letter. For example, Modly said, Crozier told him that six ventilators would be enough for the ship despite saying in the letter sailors could die.

Despite Crozier losing his job, Modly said there should not be a chilling effect on those reporting issues up the chain of command.

“It would be a mistake to view this decision as somehow not supportive of your duty to report problems, request help, protect your crews, challenge assumptions as you see fit,” he said. “This decision is not one of retribution. It is about confidence. It is not an indictment of character, but rather of judgment. While I do take issue with the validity of some of the points in Capt. Crozier’s letter, he was absolutely correct in raising them.”

Executive officer Capt. Dan Keeler is commanding the ship temporarily while Rear Adm.-select Carlos Sardiello travels to Guam to take command, Modly said.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Robert Burke will also conduct an investigation into the circumstances and climate in Pacific Fleet that led to a breakdown in the chain of command, Modly said.

Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee blasted the Navy for firing Crozier.

“While Capt. Crozier clearly went outside the chain of command, his dismissal at this critical moment – as the sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt are confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic – is a destabilizing move that will likely put our service members at greater risk and jeopardize our fleet’s readiness,” committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and subcommittee chairs Reps. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), John Garamendi (D-Calif.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement.

“Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt,” they added. “What’s more, we are very concerned about the chilling effect this dismissal will have on commanders throughout the Department of Defense.”


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