US Navy fires the captain of the aircraft carrier stricken by a coronavirus outbreak

The USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier
  • The US Navy has fired the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Navy leaders announced Thursday afternoon.
  • Capt. Brett Crozier, the carrier’s commanding officer, wrote a letter pleading with the Navy to take action to evacuate the ship amid a coronavirus outbreak on board, and that letter leaked to the media.
  • Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said Thursday that the captain’s actions and letter “caused a little bit of panic on the ship.”
  • The carrier deployed in mid-January and headed to Guam in late March amid a coronavirus outbreak. More than half the crew is now being moved ashore in Guam as COVID-19 testing continues.
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The US Navy fired the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier stuck in port and dealing with a severe coronavirus outbreak, Navy leaders said Thursday afternoon.

“Today, at my direction, the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Capt. Brett Crozier, was relieved of command,” Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday. “I did not come to this decision lightly.”

Modly said he lost confidence in the commanding officer.

The Navy’s decision to relieve Crozier came after he wrote a letter to Navy leadership begging the military branch to take decisive action to counter the spread of the virus on the carrier by getting sailors off the ship as soon as possible.

The letter was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, the captain’s hometown newspaper, which published it on Tuesday.

“The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating,” Crozier wrote in the letter. “Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our Sailors.”

As of Thursday, about 114 sailors aboard the ship had tested positive for the coronavirus. Navy leadership acknowledged there would be more cases, probably in the hundreds.

After the letter leaked to the press, the Navy said it was already taking steps to evacuate the ship. About 1,000 sailors have already gone ashore. That number is expected to increase to 2,700 within the next few days.

‘A little bit of panic’

Capt. Brett Crozier
Capt. Brett Crozier. US Navy

Modly expressed disappointment on Wednesday with some of the things the commanding officer wrote, characterising some of them as inaccurate, but said the fact that Crozier “wrote the letter up to his chain of command to express his concerns would absolutely not result in any type of retaliation.”

He did, however, say that leaking a letter to the media “would be something that would violate good order and discipline.”

Modly said Thursday, without directly accusing the captain of leaking the letter, that Crozier allowed the letter to be distributed outside the chain of command by sending it out widely in a way that may have made it susceptible to a leak. Specifically, the acting secretary said that he had 20-30 other people copied when the letter went out using non-secure email.

Saying that such actions were “not acceptable,” he told reporters the captain “demonstrated extremely poor judgement in the middle of a crisis.”

Modly said he “could reach no other conclusion that Capt. Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the COVID outbreak on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally, when acting professionally was what was needed most.”

“I have no doubt in my mind that Capt. Crozier did what he thought was in the best interest and well-being of his crew,” Modly said. “Unfortunately, it did the opposite.”

The acting secretary accused the captain of raising alarm bells unnecessarily, adding that the Crozier’s actions “caused a little bit of panic on the ship” and among the families of sailors.

Rep. Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is questioning the timing of the skipper’s removal.

While he acknowledged that Crozier “clearly went outside the chain of command,” Smith wrote in a joint statement with three of the committee’s Democrats who chair subcommittees that “his dismissal at a critical moment – as the sailors aboard 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.”

Crozier is a 1992 US Naval Academy graduate and naval aviator who later in his career attended the Nuclear Power School, a prerequisite to command a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. He did not immediately respond to requests for comment after the Navy announced his removal.