SAN DIEGO — The captain of a San Diego-based aircraft carrier battling an outbreak of COVID-19 on his ship was fired as commanding officer Thursday, days after his letter decrying conditions on his ship became public.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announced the firing during a Pentagon news conference.
“At my direction, the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Capt. Brett Crozier, was relieved of command by a carrier strike group commander, Rear Adm. Stuart Baker,” Modly said.
Capt. Brett Crozier wrote a letter late Sunday asking the Navy to remove 90% of the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt to halt the “ongoing and accelerating” spread of COVID-19 on board. That letter was published Tuesday by The San Francisco Chronicle and generated headlines nationwide.
On Wednesday, the Navy announced it was moving almost 3,000 sailors off the ship and working to find space on Guam for more.
Modly said he wasn’t sure whether Crozier leaked the letter personally, but he said Crozier didn’t do enough to ensure the letter didn’t get out, saying it was copied to many people outside the captain’s chain of command.
“It was copied to 20 or 30 other people,” Modly said. “That’s just not acceptable. He sent it out pretty broadly and in sending it out pretty broadly he did not take care to ensure that it couldn’t be leaked.”
That, Modly said, demonstrated “extremely poor judgment” in the middle of a crisis.
“It’s created a firestorm,” he said. “It’s created doubts about the ship’s ability to go to sea if it needs to.”
Modly said the letter also created panic on the ship.
“It misrepresented the facts of what was going on on the ship as well,” he said. “At the same time, the families here in the United States were panicked … . You raise a particular level of alarm when you say that 50 people on the crew are gonna die. No one knows that to be true.”
Modly said he hasn’t communicated with the White House about Crozier and didn’t receive pressure to act from Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
The Roosevelt pulled into Guam late last week after several sailors on board tested positive for COVID-19. That was two weeks after the ship visited Da Nang, Vietnam, a country with known coronavirus cases.
The Navy recently stopped disclosing the numbers of COVID-19 cases on its ships, but Modly said Thursday about 114 sailors on the Roosevelt have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Modly called Crozier an honorable man.
“The responsibility for this decision rests with me,” Modly said. “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 and he should be proud of that.”
The chief of naval operation, Adm. Mike Gilday, said he supports Modly’s decision.
“I support the secretary in his decision to relieve Capt. Crozier,” Gilday said. “Make no mistake, nobody cares more about our sailors and those aboard the Theodore Roosevelt than our leadership in the Navy. Our sailors deserve the best leadership that we can absolutely provide.”
The move generated immediate reaction on Capitol Hill as Democratic leadership on the House Armed Services Committee released a statement within minutes of Crozier’s firing.
“Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt,” the statement says.
“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.”
Modly told reporters he doesn’t think the firing will have a “chilling effect” on other commanders.
“I hope that what this will do is it will reinforce the fact that we have the proper way of handling this,” he said.
Crozier graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1992, his Navy biography says. During his career, he flew SH-60B Seahawks and F/A-18 Hornets during the Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
He’s served as executive officer of the carrier Ronald Reagan and as commanding officer of the command ship of the 7th Fleet, the amphibious command ship Blue Ridge.
The ship’s executive officer, Capt. Dan Keeler, has assumed interim command of the ship, Modly said. The Roosevelt’s previous commanding officer, Rear Adm. Select Carlos Sardiello will assume command once he arrives, Modly said.
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