Navy fires Capt. Brett Crozier, who sought help for virus-stricken ship

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Capt. Brett Crozier addresses the crew for the first time as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during a change of command ceremony, Nov. 1, 2019, on the ship’s flight deck. Crozier relieved Capt. Carlos Sardiello to become the 16th commanding officer of Theodore Roosevelt. Crozier has been relieved of command by the Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly. Modly said Crozier “demonstrated extremely poor judgement” in the middle of a crisis. (Navy photograph by PO3 Sean Lynch)
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The captain of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus on his ship was fired April 2 by Navy leaders who said he created a panic by sending his memo pleading for help to too many people.

Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the ship’s commander, Capt. Brett Crozier “demonstrated extremely poor judgment” in the middle of a crisis. He said the captain copied too many people on the memo, which was leaked to a California newspaper and quickly spread to many news outlets.

Modly’s decision was immediately condemned by members of the House Armed Services Committee, who called it a “destabilizing move” that will “likely put our service members at greater risk and jeopardize our fleet’s readiness.”

Modly told Pentagon reporters during an abruptly called press conference April 2 that Capt. Brett Crozier should have gone directly to his immediate commanders, who were already moving to help the ship. And he said Crozier created a panic by suggesting 50 sailors could die.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, with a crew of nearly 5,000, is docked in Guam, and the Navy has said as many as 3,000 will be taken off the ship and quarantined by April 3. More than 100 sailors on the ship have tested positive for the virus, but none are hospitalized at this point.

“What it does, it undermines our efforts and the chain of command’s efforts to address this problem and creates a panic and creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government is not on the job, and it’s just not true,” Modly said.

U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink, center, Adm. John C. Aquilino, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, right, Rear Adm. Stu Baker, commander, Carrier Strike Group Nine, center-left, and Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) arrive in Da Nang, Vietnam, March 5, 2020. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group was on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific and is visiting Da Nang to commemorate the 25th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations. There has been some speculation that the current coronavirus outbreak on the Roosevelt originated in Da Nang. (Navy photograph by PO3 Nicholas V. Huynh)

He complained that Capt. Brett Crozier sent the memo to people outside his chain of command and in a non-secure, unclassified email. And, he said he concluded that the captain’s ability to react professionally was overwhelmed by the virus challenge, “when acting professionally was what was needed most. We do, and we should, expect more from the commanding officers of our aircraft carriers.”

Modly said he has no information to suggest that Crozier leaked the memo to the press. But he said that if Crozier had communicated only with his leadership and not widely distributed the memo, he would likely still have a job.

Democrats on the House committee issued a joint statement in support of Capt. Brett Crozier. They said that while the captain went outside his chain of command, the pandemic presents a new set of challenges.

“Captain Crozier was justifiably concerned about the health and safety of his crew, but he did not handle the immense pressure appropriately,” the lawmakers said. “However, relieving him of his command is an overreaction.”

Crozier, in his memo, raised warnings the ship was facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus and asked permission to isolate the bulk of his crew members on shore, an extraordinary move to take a carrier out of duty in an effort to save lives.

He said that removing all but 10 percent of the crew would be a “necessary risk” in order to stop the spread of the virus.

“We are not at war. 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,” said Crozier.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly speaks at a Pentagon press briefing, Washington, D.C., April 2, 2020. (DOD photograph by Lisa Ferdinando)

 

Statement from Navy secretary on USS Roosevelt captain’s firing

“Good afternoon. Thank you again for your diligence and courage in keeping the American people informed as we all deal with the profound ramifications, and rapid developments, associated with this crisis.

I am here today to inform you that today at my direction, the Commanding Officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Capt. Crozier, was relieved of command by the Carrier Strike Group Commander, Rear Adm. Stuart Baker.

The Executive Officer, Capt. Dan Keeler, has assumed command temporarily until such time as Rear Adm. Select Carlos Sardiello arrives in Guam to assume command. Rear Admiral Select Sardiello is the former commanding officer of the Theodore Roosevelt so he is extremely well-acquainted with the ship, many members of its crew and the operations and capabilities of the ship itself. He is the best person in the Navy right now to take command under these circumstances.

As Secretary of the Navy, I could not be more proud of our men and women serving as part of the Navy and Marine Corps team. I can assure you that no one cares more than I do about their safety and welfare. I myself have a son in uniform, who is currently serving right now on active duty in Korea—one of the first nations in the world to have a significant spike in Coronavirus cases. I understand, both as a parent and a veteran, how critical our support lines are for the health and well-being of our people, especially now in the midst of a global pandemic.

But there is a larger strategic context, one full of national security imperatives, of which all our commanders must all be aware today. While we may not be at war in a traditional sense, neither are we truly at peace. Authoritarian regimes are on the rise. Many nations are reaching, in many ways, to reduce our capacity to accomplish our national goals. This is actively happening every day. It has been a long time since the Navy and Marine Corps team has faced this broad array of capable global strategic challengers. A more agile and resilient mentality is necessary, up and down the chain of command.

Perhaps more so than in the recent past, we require commanders with the judgment, maturity, and leadership composure under pressure to understand the ramifications of their actions within that larger dynamic strategic context. We all understand and cherish our responsibilities, and frankly our love, for all of our people in uniform, but to allow those emotions to color our judgment when communicating the current operational picture can, at best, create unnecessary confusion, and at worst, provide an incomplete picture of American combat readiness to our adversaries.

When the Commanding Officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt decided to write his letter of March 30, 2020, that outlined his concerns for his crew in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, the Department of the Navy had already mobilized significant resources for days in response to his previous requests. On the same date marked on his letter, my Chief of Staff had called the CO directly, at my request, to ensure he had all the resources necessary for the health and safety of his crew.

The CO told my Chief of Staff that he was receiving those resources, and was fully aware of the Navy’s response, only asking that the he wished the crew could be evacuated faster. My Chief of Staff ensured that the CO knew that he had an open line to me to use at any time. He even called the CO again a day later to follow up. At no time did the CO relay the various levels of alarm that I, along with the rest of the world, learned from his letter when it was published two days later.

Once I read the letter, I immediately called the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gilday, and the Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Aquilino. Admiral Gilday had just read the letter that morning as well, and Admiral Aquilino had it the day before. We had a teleconference within minutes of my reading of that article, including the Commander, 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. William Merz, Admiral Aquilino, Admrial Gilday, the Department of the Navy’s Surgeon General, Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, and others. That evening, we held another teleconference with the entire chain of command.

The next day, I spoke with the CO of the Theodore Roosevelt myself, and this morning, I have spoken to the TR’s Carrier Strike Group Commander, Rear Adm. Stuart Baker. Rear Adm. Baker did not know about the letter before it was sent to him via email by the CO. It is important to understand that the Strike Group Commander, the CO’s immediate boss, is embarked on the Theodore Roosevelt, right down the passageway from him. The letter was sent over non- secure, unclassified email even though that ship possesses some of the most sophisticated communications and encryption equipment in the Fleet.

It was sent outside the chain of command, at the same time the rest of the Navy was fully responding. Worse, the captain’s actions made his Sailors, their families, and many in the public believe that his letter was the only reason help from our larger Navy family was forthcoming, which was hardly the case.

Command is a sacred trust that must be continually earned, both from the Sailors and Marines one leads, and from the institution which grants that special, honored privilege.

As I learned more about the events of the past week on board USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), including my personal conversations with the Strike Group Commander, Commander, 7th Fleet, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, the Chief of Naval Operations, and Captain Crozier himself, I could reach no other conclusion than that Captain Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally, when acting professionally was what was needed most. We do, and we should, expect more from the Commanding Officers of our aircraft carriers.

I did not come to this decision lightly. I have no doubt in my mind that Captain Crozier did what he thought was in the best interests of the safety and well-being of his crew. Unfortunately, it did the opposite. It unnecessarily raised alarms with the families of our Sailors and Marines with no plan to address those concerns. It raised concerns about the operational capabilities and operational security of the ship that could have emboldened our adversaries to seek advantage, and it undermined the chain of command who had been moving and adjusting as rapidly as possible to get him the help he needed.

For these reasons, I lost confidence in his ability to lead that warship as it continues to fight through this virus, get the crew healthy, so that it can continue to meet its national security requirements. In my judgement relieving him of command was in the best interests of the United States Navy and the nation in this time when the nation needs the Navy to be strong and confident in the face of adversity. The responsibility for this decision rests with me. I expect no congratulations for it, and it gives me no pleasure in making it. Captain Crozier is an honorable man, who despite this uncharacteristic lapse of judgment, has dedicated himself throughout a lifetime of incredible service to our nation.

Pursuant to this action, and with my full support, the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gilday has directed the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Robert Burke, to conduct an investigation into the circumstances and climate of the entire Pacific Fleet to help determine what may have contributed to this breakdown in the chain of command. We must ensure we can count on the right judgment, professionalism, composure, and leadership from our Commanding Officers everywhere on our Navy and Marine Corps team, but especially in the Western Pacific. I have no indication that there is a broader problem in this regard, but we have obligation to calmly and evenly investigate that nonetheless.

To our Commanding Officers, it would be a mistake to view this decision as somehow not supportive of your duty to report problems, request help, protect your crews, and challenge assumptions as you see fit.

This decision is not one of retribution. It is about confidence. It is not an indictment of character, but rather of judgement. While I do take issue with thevalidity of some of the points in Captain Crozier’s letter, he was absolutely correct in raising them.

It was the way in which he did this, by not working through and with his Strike Group Commander to develop a strategy to resolve the problems he raised, by not sending the letter to and through his chain of command, by not protecting the sensitive nature of the information contained within the letter appropriately, and lastly by not reaching out to me directly to voice is concerns, after that avenue had been provided to him through my team, that was unacceptable.
Let me be clear, you all have a duty to be transparent with your respective chains of command, even if you fear they might disagree with you. This duty requires courage, but it also requires respect for that chain of command, and for the sensitivity of the information you decide to share and the manner you choose to share it.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would like to send a message to the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt and their families back here at home. I am entirely convinced that your Commanding Officer loves you, and that he had you at the center of his heart and mind in every decision that he has made. I also know that you have great affection, and love, for him as well. But it is my responsibility to ensure that his love and concern for you is matched, if not exceeded by, his sober and professional judgement under pressure.

You deserve that throughout all the dangerous activities for which you train so diligently, but most importantly, for those situations which are unpredictable and are hard to plan for. It’s important because you are the TR, you are the Big Stick, and what happens onboard the TR matters far beyond the physical limits of your hull. Your shipmates across the fleet need for you to be strong and ready—and most especially right now they need you to be courageous in the face of adversity.

The nation needs to know that the Big Stick is undaunted, unstoppable —and that you will stay that way as we as a Navy help you through this COVID-19 challenge. Our adversaries need to know this as well. They respect and fear the Big Stick, and they should. We will not allow anything to diminish that respect and fear as you, and the rest of our nation, fights through this virus. As I stated, we are not at war by traditional measures, but neither are we at peace. The nation you defend is in a fight right now for our economic, personal and political security, and you are on the front lines of this fight in many ways.

You can offer comfort to your fellow citizens who are struggling and fearful here at home by standing the watch, and working your way through this pandemic with courage and optimism and set the example for the nation. We have an obligation to ensure you have everything you need as fast as we can get it there, and you have my commitment that we will not let you down. The nation you have sworn to defend is in a fight, and the nations and bad actors around the world who wish us harm should understand that the Big Stick is in the neighborhood and that her crew is standing the watch.
Thank you.”

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly
 
 
 

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