Navy Sacks Carrier Captain, Pulls Another Carrier Off Station Over COVID-19 Concerns (Updated)

The Navy says the officer misrepresented the facts and should have taken better precautions to ensure the detailed letter did not leak to the press.

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The U.S. Navy has relieved Captain Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is presently in Guam amid a major outbreak of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus among its crew. Crozier wrote a damning letter to his superiors over the response to the outbreak, pleading to get the bulk of the sailors off the ship to avoid "tragic outcomes." The Acting Secretary of the Navy says the officer did not take adequate precautions to prevent the letter, which it also says included overly detailed information about his ship's readiness, from leaking to the press. 

Reuters was first to report that Crozier was in danger of losing his job over the letter, suggesting that the Navy believed that the captain had leaked the letter. The Navy has now said this was not the case. Acting Secretary of Defense Thomas Modly told reporters later in the day that the officer had sent his missive through unclassified channels and between 20 and 30 different individuals had received a copy. The Pentagon had announced earlier this week that it would be releasing less granular information about COVID-19 cases across the U.S. military due to operational security concerns.

"I’m not trying to suggest he leaked information," Modly said. "What I will say, is that he sent it out pretty broadly and he didn’t take care that it couldn’t be leaked."

During a press conference on Apr. 1, Modly had previously said that Crozier was not in danger of punishment for having sent the letter, but that he could face disciplinary action if it was found that he was involved in leaking it to the press. 

The San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the initial story earlier this week, had noted that Crozier is a native of Santa Rosa, situated some 50 miles northwest of San Francisco. It also said an officer on board the Theodore Roosevelt had confirmed the letter's authenticity.

The Acting Secretary of the Navy accused him of not sufficiently communicating the seriousness of the situation prior to sending his letter, as well, but also disputed Crozier's level of concern. Modly said the letter "misrepresented the facts," created an undue panic among families, and offered a dangerous and inaccurate signal to America's adversaries about the service's readiness. 

U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations, said he agreed with Modly's viewpoint. Gilday had also said at the Apr. 1 press conference, where he said that that he felt there had been a "breakdown in communication" with Crozier. "We are not looking to shoot the messenger here, we want to get this right," he had also said at that time.

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The r USS Theodore Roosevelt during a previous port visit to Guam.

So far, the Navy says it has removed 1,000 sailors from the Theodore Roosevelt and is looking to get another 2,700 individuals ashore in the near future. The ship reportedly has a crew complement at present of more than 4,000 sailors and it is unclear if the service intends to follow through with Crozier's proposal to ultimately leave just 10 percent of those individuals onboard to perform critical tasks, such as maintaining the carrier's two nuclear reactors and providing security. You can read more about the letter and its contents in this past War Zone piece.

As of Apr. 1, the Navy said that 93 sailors from the Theodore Roosevelt were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 and another 86 were displaying symptoms. The service also said that it had tested 24 percent of the ship's crew, with 593 negative results, and that it could test up 200 sailors every day. 

Crozier's letter notwithstanding, it had become increasingly apparent that the carrier would be sidelined for the foreseeable future, despite the Navy's repeated insistence that the ship could deploy, if necessary. Crozier had indicated in his letter that this attitude would lead to a situation where "we go to war with the force we have and fight sick. We never achieve a COVID-free TR [Theodore Roosevelt]. There will be losses to the virus."

"We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die," Crozier had added. "If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our Sailors."

"While we are not at war in a traditional sense, neither are we truly at peace." Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said on Apr. 2, in a clear retort, while announcing Crozier's relief.

The Theodore Roosevelt's predicament increasingly looks to have upended carrier activities around the world. There are reports now that one of the two carriers present in the Middle East, the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, will be diverted to the Pacific. This has raised concerns that there could be a fight brewing for carriers between different U.S. regional commands.

The only other carrier forward deployed in the Pacific region is the USS Ronald Reagan, which is undergoing maintenance in Japan. Some of its sailors have also contracted COVID-19, raising concerns about its crew's readiness. The War Zone had warned last week that the spread of the virus onboard Roosevelt could be a canary in the coal mine type incident for the Navy.

The Pentagon had only just recently arranged for the deployment of two carriers in the Middle East for the first time in years, ostensibly to deter Iran and its proxies from launching attacks on U.S. forces in the region. "Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq," President Donald Trump had also cryptically Tweeted out on Apr. 1. "If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!"

Of course, there had also been a clear sense that Modly, in particular, had been extremely embarrassed by the letter and upset on various levels at its assertions.  "Several sources say that the decision was not made in Hawaii [where U.S. Pacific Fleet is headquartered. This is all D.C.," USNI News reporter Sam LaGrone wrote on Twitter.

The full fallout from the Theodore Roosevelt's COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the sacking of Captain Crozier, remains to be seen. U.S. Congressman Seth Moulton, a Massachusett's Democrat and a retired Marine, took to Twitter implying that he would have serious questions for the Navy's top leadership over the situation and its handling thereof.

"I learned on my first day in the Marines that having the courage to speak truth to power is grounds for respect not grounds for relief," Moulton Tweeted out. "This is far from the first time in the last several years that Congress is going to have a lot of questions for Navy leadership – on leadership."

On Mar. 19, 2020, Moulton had also sent a letter to the top officers of all of the branches of the U.S. military, including the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as the head of the National Guard Bureau asking for information about what had been done to prepare their forces for the COVID-19 pandemic. His office says that he has not yet received any responses.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 6:50pm EST:

More members of Congress have issued scathing statements in response to the Navy's decision to relieve Crozier. 

Here is the full statement from the House Armed Services Committee leadership:

"House Armed Services Committee leadership – including Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Subcommittee Chairs Joe Courtney (D-CT), John Garamendi (D-CA), and Jackie Speier (D-CA) – today issued the following statement after Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly announced that Captain Brett E. Crozier will be relieved of his post as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier that has been grappling with the spread of COVID-19 cases among its Sailors:"
 
“While Captain Crozier clearly went outside the chain of command, his dismissal at this critical moment – as the Sailors aboard the U.S.S. 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."

“The COVID pandemic presents a set of new challenges and there is much we still do not know. Captain Crozier was justifiably concerned about the health and safety of his crew, but he did not handle the immense pressure appropriately. However, relieving him of his command is an overreaction."

“Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. What’s more, we are very concerned about the chilling effect this dismissal will have on commanders throughout the Department of Defense. Dismissing a commanding officer for speaking out on issues critical to the safety of those under their command discourages others from raising similar concerns."

“We are also concerned about the lack of guidance from Department of Defense leadership. Secretary Esper continues to say that commanders and non-commissioned officers should be calling the shots, forcing them to make decisions on matters outside of their expertise while under immense pressure."

"As the crew continues to grapple with this health crisis, the Navy should be focused first and foremost on the safety of our service members. Once they are secured, there will be ample time to identify what went wrong and who is to blame.”

Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, has also taken to Twitter to decry Crozier's firing. Just yesterday, Warner had sent his own letter to Acting Secretary Modly asking for information about what the Navy was doing to protect its personnel from the COVID-19 pandemic broadly and in response to the situation on board the Theodore Roosevelt specifically.

UPDATE: 8:50pm EST:

The Navy has released a full transcript of Acting Secretary Modly's Apr. 2 remarks regarding his decision to relieve Captain Crozier. It is as follows:

"Good afternoon. Thank you again for your diligence and courage in keeping the American people informed as we all deal with the profound ramifications, and rapid developments, associated with this crisis."

"I am here today to inform you that today at my direction, the Commanding Officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Captain Crozier, was relieved of command by the Carrier Strike Group Commander, Rear Admiral Stuart Baker."

"The Executive Officer, Captain Dan Keeler, has assumed command temporarily until such time as Rear Admiral Select Carlos Sardiello arrives in Guam to assume command. Rear Admiral Select Sardiello is the former commanding officer of the Theodore Roosevelt so he is extremely well-acquainted with the ship, many members of its crew and the operations and capabilities of the ship itself. He is the best person in the Navy right now to take command under these circumstances."

"As Secretary of the Navy, I could not be more proud of our men and women serving as part of the Navy and Marine Corps team. I can assure you that no one cares more than I do about their safety and welfare. I myself have a son in uniform, who is currently serving right now on active duty in Korea—one of the first nations in the world to have a significant spike in Coronavirus cases. I understand, both as a parent and a veteran, how critical our support lines are for the health and well-being of our people, especially now in the midst of a global pandemic."

"But there is a larger strategic context, one full of national security imperatives, of which all our commanders must all be aware today. While we may not be at war in a traditional sense, neither are we truly at peace. Authoritarian regimes are on the rise. Many nations are reaching, in many ways, to reduce our capacity to accomplish our national goals. This is actively happening every day. It has been a long time since the Navy and Marine Corps team has faced this broad array of capable global strategic challengers. A more agile and resilient mentality is necessary, up and down the chain of command."

"Perhaps more so than in the recent past, we require commanders with the judgment, maturity, and leadership composure under pressure to understand the ramifications of their actions within that larger dynamic strategic context. 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."

"When the Commanding Officer of the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT decided to write his letter of 30 March 2020 that outlined his concerns for his crew in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, the Department of the Navy had already mobilized significant resources for days in response to his previous requests. On the same date marked on his letter, my Chief of Staff had called the CO directly, at my request, to ensure he had all the resources necessary for the health and safety of his crew."

"The CO told my Chief of Staff that he was receiving those resources, and was fully aware of the Navy’s response, only asking that the he wished the crew could be evacuated faster. My Chief of Staff ensured that the CO knew that he had an open line to me to use at any time. He even called the CO again a day later to follow up. At no time did the CO relay the various levels of alarm that I, along with the rest of the world, learned from his letter when it was published two days later."

"Once I read the letter, I immediately called the Chief of Naval Operations, ADM Gilday, and the Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, ADM Aquilino. ADM Gilday had just read the letter that morning as well, and ADM Aquilino had it the day before. We had a teleconference within minutes of my reading of that article, including the Commander, SEVENTH Fleet, VADM William Merz, ADM Aquilino, ADM Gilday, the Department of the Navy’s Surgeon General, RADM Bruce Gillingham, and others. That evening, we held another teleconference with the entire chain of command."

"The next day, I spoke with the CO of the THEODORE ROOSEVELT myself, and this morning, I have spoken to the TR’s Carrier Strike Group Commander, RDML Stuart Baker. RDML Baker did not know about the letter before it was sent to him via email by the CO. It is important to understand that the Strike Group Commander, the CO’s immediate boss, is embarked on the Theodore Roosevelt, right down the passageway from him. 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."

"It was sent outside the chain of command, at the same time the rest of the Navy was fully responding. Worse, 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."

"Command is a sacred trust that must be continually earned, both from the Sailors and Marines one leads, and from the institution which grants that special, honored privilege."

"As I learned more about the events of the past week on board USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71), including my personal conversations with the Strike Group Commander, Commander, SEVENTH Fleet, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, the Chief of Naval Operations, and CAPT Crozier himself, I could reach no other conclusion than that Captain Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally, when acting professionally was what was needed most. We do, and we should, expect more from the Commanding Officers of our aircraft carriers."

"I did not come to this decision lightly. I have no doubt in my mind that Captain Crozier did what he thought was in the best interests of the safety and well-being of his crew. Unfortunately, it did the opposite. It unnecessarily raised alarms with the families of our Sailors and Marines with no plan to address those concerns. It raised concerns about the operational capabilities and operational security of the ship that could have emboldened our adversaries to seek advantage, and it undermined the chain of command who had been moving and adjusting as rapidly as possible to get him the help he needed."

"For these reasons, I lost confidence in his ability to lead that warship as it continues to fight through this virus, get the crew healthy, so that it can continue to meet its national security requirements. In my judgement relieving him of command was in the best interests 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. The responsibility for this decision rests with me. I expect no congratulations for it, and it gives me no pleasure in making it. CAPT Crozier is an honorable man, who despite this uncharacteristic lapse of judgment, has dedicated himself throughout a lifetime of incredible service to our nation."

"Pursuant to this action, and with my full support, the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gilday has directed the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Robert Burke, to conduct an investigation into the circumstances and climate of the entire Pacific Fleet to help determine what may have contributed to this breakdown in the chain of command. We must ensure we can count on the right judgment, professionalism, composure, and leadership from our Commanding Officers everywhere on our Navy and Marine Corps team, but especially in the Western Pacific. I have no indication that there is a broader problem in this regard, but we have obligation to calmly and evenly investigate that nonetheless."

"To our Commanding Officers, it would be a mistake to view this decision as somehow not supportive of your duty to report problems, request help, protect your crews, and challenge assumptions as you see fit."

"This decision is not one of retribution. It is about confidence. It is not an indictment of character, but rather of judgement. While I do take issue with the validity of some of the points in Captain Crozier’s letter, he was absolutely correct in raising them."

"It was the way in which he did this, by not working through and with his Strike Group Commander to develop a strategy to resolve the problems he raised, by not sending the letter to and through his chain of command, by not protecting the sensitive nature of the information contained within the letter appropriately, and lastly by not reaching out to me directly to voice is concerns, after that avenue had been provided to him through my team, that was unacceptable."

"Let me be clear, you all have a duty to be transparent with your respective chains of command, even if you fear they might disagree with you. This duty requires courage, but it also requires respect for that chain of command, and for the sensitivity of the information you decide to share and the manner you choose to share it."

"Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would like to send a message to the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt and their families back here at home. I am entirely convinced that your Commanding Officer loves you, and that he had you at the center of his heart and mind in every decision that he has made. I also know that you have great affection, and love, for him as well. But it is my responsibility to ensure that his love and concern for you is matched, if not exceeded by, his sober and professional judgement under pressure."

You deserve that throughout all the dangerous activities for which you train so diligently, but most importantly, for those situations which are unpredictable and are hard to plan for. It’s important because you are the TR, you are the Big Stick, and what happens onboard the TR matters far beyond the physical limits of your hull. Your shipmates across the fleet need for you to be strong and ready—and most especially right now they need you to be courageous in the face of adversity.

"The nation needs to know that the Big Stick is undaunted, unstoppable —and that you will stay that way as we as a Navy help you through this COVID-19 challenge. Our adversaries need to know this as well. They respect and fear the Big Stick, and they should. We will not allow anything to diminish that respect and fear as you, and the rest of our nation, fights through this virus. As I stated, we are not at war by traditional measures, but neither are we at peace. The nation you defend is in a fight right now for our economic, personal and political security, and you are on the front lines of this fight in many ways."

"You can offer comfort to your fellow citizens who are struggling and fearful here at home by standing the watch, and working your way through this pandemic with courage and optimism and set the example for the nation. We have an obligation to ensure you have everything you need as fast as we can get it there, and you have my commitment that we will not let you down. The nation you have sworn to defend is in a fight, and the nations and bad actors around the world who wish us harm should understand that the Big Stick is in the neighborhood and that her crew is standing the watch."

"Thank you, and I am ready to answer any questions you may have."

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com