Editorial: Navy task: Clean up the coronavirus mess aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt

Tribune Content Agency

Sailors go through boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes near North Chicago, Ill., but things are different due to COVID-19. The current class of recruits was sent to Great Wolf Lodge, a nearby hotel and water park, for two weeks of isolation before training. And no, they weren’t allowed to use the waterslides.

We’re thinking of those recruits — their service to country and their safety — in light of a controversy rocking the Navy: Whether Capt. Brett Crozier should be returned to his position as commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Naval officials have made a mess of an investigation related to a March coronavirus outbreak aboard Crozier’s aircraft carrier in the Pacific.

It’s a troubling situation. Should sailors, their families and Americans have confidence in the Navy ability’s to manage a health crisis at sea? That’s what needs to be resolved.

At Great Lakes, the government is no longer reporting numbers of COVID-19 positive cases. Citing security, that information is now a secret, leaving the public “guessing about the disease’s impact at a busy military hub that employs some 25,000 people, houses about 15,000 and is roughly five times the size of Grant Park,” the Chicago Tribune’s Dan Hinkel wrote in a story posted April 17.

Crozier was fired in early April after he warned his superiors in a letter that the Navy wasn’t acting quickly or decisively enough to protect his Roosevelt sailors from the virus. Crozier wrote: “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”

There have been more than 1,100 active COVID-19 cases among the Roosevelt’s 4,900 sailors. Crozier reportedly is recovering himself. One sailor died. The ship remains in Guam under quarantine, where it sought refuge in March.

On April 24, the Navy recommended that Crozier be reinstated, but that decision has been set aside for now. Acting Navy Secretary James McPherson has ordered a “deeper review,” which sounds like the Pentagon wants to look higher up the chain of command to determine what happened aboard the Roosevelt, and if officials above Crozier failed in their responsibilities.

One reason Crozier may have gotten in trouble is that his four-page memo was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle. The publicity apparently embarrassed Navy brass. Then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly flew to Guam to visit the carrier, where he used an address to the crew to insult and demean Crozier. Modly’s rant reflected such bad judgment that he resigned. Notably, when Crozier left the ship he was cheered by his sailors.

Also notable, Crozier’s warning appears to have been spot on — COVID-19 was running rampant on the ship. His letter was alarming, but it wasn’t hysterical. If the Navy had heeded the captain’s advice and quickly isolated the crew and decontaminated the Roosevelt, the outbreak might have been contained.

The Navy has given itself another opportunity to investigate its response to the Roosevelt’s coronavirus outbreak, and apportion blame or credit wherever it’s due. If Capt. Crozier’s decision-making stands up to scrutiny, he deserves to be reinstated and get one more rousing cheer from his crew.

All sailors, including those recruits about to start training at Great Lakes, need to have confidence that their leaders are looking out for them. By all accounts we’ve seen so far, Crozier was.


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