Former Trump Navy secretary says he should not have used profanity in a speech to sailors upset their captain was fired

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Former Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jake McClung
  • Former Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly wrote Wednesday that he made some mistakes.
  • He wrote that he should have checked his anger and avoided using profanity in a speech to sailors.
  • The speech to the COVID-stricken aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt ended his career.
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Former Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly wrote Wednesday about lessons he learned while leading the service, which included checking your anger and avoiding profanity.

Modly resigned under fire last April after removing the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier stricken by COVID-19 and flying to Guam to where he trashed that officer to his crew in a profanity-laced speech. In his new column, published in the US Naval Institute’s magazine, Modly admitted that he made mistakes as the head of the Navy.

“Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone,” Modly wrote in the article. “In times of high tension and stress — times like the current COVID-19 pandemic — fear often accentuates mistakes and increases the misinterpretations of facts surrounding them.”

In early April, Modly publicly fired Capt. Brett Crozier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer, after a letter the captain wrote warning about a worsening coronavirus outbreak aboard the carrier leaked to the media. Days later, he flew out to Guam, where the carrier had been sidelined by the outbreak, to talk to the crew.

Shortly after his speech, audio recordings were leaked to the press. In the audio, Modly can be heard describing Crozier, who was beloved by the crew, as possibly “too naive or too stupid to be commanding officer of a ship like this.” He accused Crozier of a “betrayal” and said the media — which ran stories based on Crozier’s warning that coronavirus was spreading through the deployed ship — was using this information “to divide us.”

The acting secretary’s remarks to the roughly 5,000 sailors aboard the carrier were widely criticised. Although he initially said he stood by his statements, “even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis,” he later apologised for his comments, specifically those critical of Crozier.

“Don’t try to be someone you are not, and, as I learned, avoid using profanity, particularly when your audience might be global,” Modly wrote Wednesday, although he didn’t completely rule it out.

“Cursing can be an effective form of communication if you are a comedian, a football coach, or a master chief, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless absolutely necessary,” he wrote. “Sometimes it just might be.”

Modly also wrote that he learned that it is necessary to control one’s anger, which some observers suspected was the impetus for his Guam speech. The speech came after videos of Crozier departing the ship to the sound of the carrier crew cheering and chanting his name surfaced online.

“Without question, anger will undermine your credibility as a leader, and it may lead to false assumptions about your compassion and respect for your people,” he said. “Put yourself in the shoes of those you are addressing. Lecture less, listen and empathise more.”

All that said, the former acting Navy secretary noted in his article that he believes Crozier should have been relieved of his command. That decision was supported by the Navy, which decided not to reinstate the captain after a thorough investigation into the events that unfolded aboard the Theodore Roosevelt.

“I know he believed he was making the best decisions he could at the time. In my view, he made a big mistake,” Modly said. “Ultimately, that was my judgment to make as his most senior boss in the Department of the Navy.”

He also wrote that he was right to address the crew of the carrier with a tough message. He said the real problem was in how he delivered it.