Navy fires USS Theodore Roosevelt captain days after he pleaded for help for sailors with coronavirus
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WASHINGTON – The Navy fired the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt on Thursday, four days after he pleaded for help as the coronavirus ravaged his crew, the Navy announced.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announced that Navy Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved for loss of confidence.
"I just know that he exercised extremely poor judgment," Modly said.
Crozier had sent an urgent letter to the U.S. Navy on Sunday, seeking to evacuate and isolate the crew as cases of coronavirus infection increased on the vessel. "Decisive action" was required to prevent deaths from the coronavirus, Crozier wrote. The ship's close quarters prevented sailors from following guidelines to keep them safe.
Modly said Thursday that the Navy had been speeding help to the Roosevelt before Crozier had sent his letter.
Democrats who lead the House Armed Services committee blasted Modly for firing Crozier. The lawmakers acknowledged Crozier improperly went outside the chain of command in releasing his letter, but they called his dismissal an overreaction.
“Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt," the Democrats, led by Rep. Adam Smith, D- Wash., and chairman of the committee, said in a statement. "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."
By Wednesday the Navy had evacuated about 1,000 sailors from the nuclear-powered ship, which is docked at Guam. About one-quarter of the 4,800 member crew had been tested for the virus, and 93 had been found to have COVID-19.
None were seriously ill, according the Navy.
At a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, Navy officials chose their words carefully when discussing Crozier. But the letter's publication by the San Francisco Chronicle caught the Navy by surprise, and officials scrambled to show they were responding to concerns about sailors' health.
The letter was sent out broadly via email on an insecure network and copied to "20 or 30 other people," Modly said Thursday. Modly and other Navy officials had not seen it until it appeared in the paper. "He did not safeguard that information," Modly said.
The letter created a degree of "panic" on ship, Modly said.
"Navy leadership today cost itself tremendous credibility when it could least afford it,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee. “Rather than stand with a brave leader who raised legitimate concerns about an imminent, serious threat, the Navy’s leaders prioritized their own appearances over their sailors’ lives. The Personnel Subcommittee, which I chair, will investigate this blatant act of whistleblower retaliation.”
As of late Thursday, 114 sailors have tested positively for the virus, Modly said. And he expects "hundreds more" to be infected.
There are 3,000 beds available on Guam for sailors who fall ill, Modly said, and those measures were underway before the letter was made public.
Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, appeared with Modly at the hastily called briefing at the Pentagon late Thursday. Gilday said he supported the decision to relieve Crozier, and that an investigation is underway about the letter and how it was distributed.
"Our sailors deserve the best leadership we can absolutely supply," Gilday said.
Modly said he informed Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday that he was leaning toward firing Crozier. At no time, Modly said, did White House officials try to influence his decision.
"We expect more from our commanding officers than what they train for," Modly said.