Former Navy head defends decisions during USS Roosevelt COVID-19 outbreak

Greg Nash

The former acting head of the Navy, who resigned last year amid uproar over his handling of a COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, stood by his decisions during the episode in a new column, even as he acknowledged he could have carried them out differently.

Writing in the February edition of the U.S. Naval Institute’s “Proceedings” magazine, former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly lashed out at those who questioned his decisions while defending firing the ship’s popular commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, after a letter the captain wrote pleading for help with the outbreak leaked in the media.

“I know he believed he was making the best decisions he could at the time. In my view, he made a big mistake,” Modly wrote.

“Ultimately, that was my judgment to make as his most senior boss in the Department of the Navy,” he continued. “It was my call. Not the media’s. Not Congress’s. Not the retired generals or admirals who seem very comfortable enhancing their personal brands by second guessing people in public office—a role they resented when they were on active duty and grappling with life-and-death decisions.”

Modly resigned in April after firing Crozier and then flying to Guam to give a profanity-laced speech aboard the Roosevelt in which he berated the captain as “too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this” if he thought his letter wouldn’t leak.

After Modly’s speech leaked, he at first stood by it, but then apologized for his language and resigned as calls from lawmakers for his removal mounted.

In June, the Navy upheld Crozier’s firing, reversing a preliminary recommendation in April to reinstate him, after an internal investigation concluded he did not act quickly enough to protect sailors.

In his “lessons learned” piece for the U.S. Naval Institute, Modly said he made mistakes in the “execution” of his decisions, adding he has learned to “avoid using profanity, particularly when your audience might be global.”

But he said he still thinks he was right to fire Crozier, go to Guam and give a “tough” speech to the Roosevelt crew. He also said he was right to resign after his speech leaked.

“In the end, the biggest casualty of the decisions I made regarding the Theodore Roosevelt was my tenure as acting Secretary,” he wrote. “From my perspective, that was a small price to pay if the broader message I tried to convey to the crew about love, duty and courage sinks in with our entire Navy over time.”

More than 1,000 sailors were sickened during the COVID-19 outbreak on the Roosevelt, and one sailor, Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., died.

Citing the Navy’s internal investigation, the Pentagon’s inspector general this week said the ship’s leadership exacerbated the outbreak by failing to enforce social distancing and prematurely releasing sailors from quarantine.

Tags Brett Crozier COVID-19 pandemic on USS Theodore Roosevelt Thomas Modly
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