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Pandemic Spreads in US Fleet, Sidelines Pacific Carrier, Upturns Navy Leadership

A U.S. carrier captain is fired and the navy secretary resigns in public uproar as COVID-19 cases spread through the fleet.

Steven Stashwick
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Pandemic Spreads in US Fleet, Sidelines Pacific Carrier, Upturns Navy Leadership

In this Nov. 15, 2019, photo U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew during an all-hands call on the ship’s flight deck while conducting routine operations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

Credit: U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh via AP

As the threat of the coronavirus pandemic has forced cities and economies to a standstill around the world, infections have sidelined a U.S. aircraft carrier and led to the resignation of the U.S. Navy’s top civilian leader.

After early cases of COVID-19 were reported on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt following a high-profile port visit to Vietnam, the ship proceeded to Guam while the Navy evaluated how to deal with the shipboard epidemic. As cases mounted, the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s captain wrote a stark memorandum to superiors advocating removing his crew from the ship to enable more effective isolation in hopes of stemming further infections. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die” to keep operating the ship, Capt. Brett Crozier wrote.

The document’s subsequent leak to the media led to a firestorm that left U.S. Navy leadership in Washington D.C. feeling blindsided. Just a day later the Theodore Roosevelt’s captain was removed from command at the direction of the acting secretary of the navy, Thomas Modly, nominally for showing poor judgment in allowing his memorandum to be released publicly. Crozier, who walked off to grateful cheers from the crew, has reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 himself and remains in quarantine in Guam.

Facing enormous public criticism over the captain’s removal, including from the great-grandson of the ship’s namesake, Modly traveled to Guam where he addressed the crew in remarks many deemed unempathetic and at times insulting. Sailors who recorded the secretary’s remarks, which included admonishing the fired captain for not knowing his memo would leak to the media in “this information age that we live in,” subsequently leaked the recording to the press. In his address Modly called Crozier’s memorandum and attempt to protect his crew a “betrayal of trust,” accused him of being “a martyr,” and called Crozier either “naïve” or “too stupid” to command a ship. Modly also railed against what he called a biased and hostile news media.

After attempts to explain his remarks publicly and an apology to the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt failed to quell criticism, Modly submitted his resignation to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday. The undersecretary of the army, a retired admiral and once the Navy’s top uniformed lawyer, will take over as acting secretary of the navy.

In a message to the fleet in the wake of Modly’s resignation, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday said his priorities were “First, our health and safety. Second, ongoing fleet operations and our support to the coronavirus effort. Third, continuing to generate the enormous amount of support required to keep #1 and #2 on track.”

“We must ensure the health of the force. And we must be laser-focused on the Fleet – from manning to maintenance, and from training to warfighting,” Gilday added.

Meanwhile in addition to the nearly 300 sailors found positive for COVID-19 on the Theodore Roosevelt so far, sailors have also been found infected on three other Pacific-based carriers, the Ronald Reagan in Yokosuka, Japan; the Carl Vinson based in San Diego; and most recently, the USS Nimitz, based in Bremerton, Washington. The Carl Vinson just completed more than a year of repairs in Bremerton, which is near Seattle, site of some of the earliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States. Only the USS Abraham Lincoln, based in San Diego, has no reported cases among the United States’ Pacific-based carriers.

While the Theodore Roosevelt is sidelined in Guam for an undetermined period, only the Nimitz is slated to deploy soon. Navy officials have said that affected sailors and those they were in close contact with have been isolated and removed from the ship in hopes of preventing an outbreak that would threaten the carrier’s upcoming Pacific deployment.

Gilday said that deploying units were enforcing a 14-day “restriction of movement,” essentially a preventive quarantine, on crews to ensure no one develops symptoms prior to departing and risks infecting others.