U.S. Navy removes captain who criticized coronavirus response
Updated 09:43, 03-Apr-2020

The Pentagon removed the captain of the coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt Thursday, saying he mishandled communications over how the outbreak was sweeping through the warship.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said Captain Brett Crozier was wrong to distribute to a wide range of people copies of an emotional, four-page letter describing the threat of the outbreak to the ship's nearly 5,000 sailors, allowing it to be leaked earlier this week to U.S. media before top defense officials saw it.

Modly said that while there have been 114 cases of the coronavirus in the crew so far, none has been severe and Crozier overstated the severity when he suggested sailors were going to die without fast action.

The carrier was in the Pacific when the Navy reported its first coronavirus case a week ago. It has since docked at the U.S. Naval Base Guam on the southern end of the American island territory in the western Pacific.

Crozier "demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis," Modly said.

"It misrepresented the facts of what was going on the ship" and created "a little bit of panic" that was unnecessary, he said.

"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," said Modly.

"Unfortunately, it did the opposite." In addition to frightening families of the sailors, he said, "it raised concerns about the operational capabilities and operational security of that ship that could have emboldened our adversaries to seek advantage."

When asked multiple times whether the captain faced discipline, Modly said: "I don't know who leaked the letter to the media. That would be something that would violate the principles of good order and discipline, if he were responsible for that. But I don't know that."

"The fact that he wrote the letter up to his chain of command to express his concerns would absolutely not result in any type of retaliation," he added.

Disease 'accelerating'

Crozier's letter, which leaked Tuesday, sparked concern that the virus was out of control and suggested the Navy leadership was not responding. Crozier stunned experts by saying the ship had to be evacuated to ensure the coronavirus does not spread further.

"The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating," he wrote.

"We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die," he pleaded.

"Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure," he said, adding that "this is a necessary risk."

The letter put the Pentagon on the defensive about whether it was doing enough to keep the warship's 5,000 crew members safe, and alarmed the families of those aboard the vessel, whose home port is in San Diego.

Modly said the situation was exaggerated and that it was not correct that the Navy leadership was not addressing the problem at the time the letter went out. In addition, he faulted Crozier for "an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment" in sending an unclassified letter meant for his superiors to as many as 30 people, increasing the chance it would be made public.

The letter "undermined the chain of command who had been moving and adjusting as rapidly as possible to get him the help he needed," Modly said.


Modly suggested that Crozier exposed a weakness in U.S. military readiness that adversaries could take advantage of.

"While we may not be at war in a traditional sense, neither are we truly at peace.... Many nations are reaching in many ways to reduce our capacity to accomplish our own strategic national goals," he said.

"We require our commanders with judgment, maturity and leadership composure under pressure to understand the ramifications of their actions within that larger, dynamic strategic context."

Modly said the episode would be investigated, noting that Crozier's own immediate superior was aboard the Roosevelt at the time, but also referring to possible ongoing management problems in the U.S. Pacific fleet, which experienced two fatal collisions last year. 

The Roosevelt, one of two U.S. Navy carriers in the western Pacific, is now docked in Guam where most of the crew is being offloaded and placed in shore housing to decontaminate the vessel.

The Navy said Rear Admiral Carlos Sardiello, a former captain of the Roosevelt, will replace Crozier.

By sidelining the Roosevelt, the virus outbreak has hobbled a key asset of U.S. military readiness, though U.S. defense officials say there are no immediate strategic threats and that the ship can be put to sea quickly if required. Earlier this week Defense Secretary Mark Esper said adversaries' armed forces are also challenged by COVID-19.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about the coronavirus and illegal drugs in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Washington, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, listens. /AP

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about the coronavirus and illegal drugs in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Washington, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, listens. /AP

Hotel quarantine in Guam

An initial group of 1,000 sailors was moved from the ship onto the base on Wednesday. If they test positive for the virus or show flu-like symptoms, they are placed in isolation, but if they are well and test negative, they are quarantined, the region's U.S. Navy commander, Rear Admiral John Menoni, said during a news conference on the island on Thursday.

Those who remain asymptomatic and test negative will be transported to a vacant hotel about eight miles away in Guam's commercial Tumon district, where they will be quarantined for two weeks, territorial Governor Lourdes Leon Guerrero told Reuters. The quarantine will be overseen entirely by the U.S. military, she said.

The Navy said 2,700 crew would ultimately be removed from the ship over the next few days, and that 93 personnel have so far tested positive.

"This ship has weapons on it. It has munitions on it... It requires a certain number of people on that ship to maintain the safety and security of the ship," Modly said.

(With input from AFP, Reuters) 

(Cover: Crewmen of the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt prepare their aircraft in international waters off South China Sea, April 10, 2018, /AP)