The United States uses warships like the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to project power across the globe. And it was on such a mission when it left San Diego on Jan. 17 for the western Pacific.
The Navy had planned for months that the carrier make an historic stopover in Vietnam, marking 25 years of diplomacy. During five days there in early March, sailors went ashore. After returning to sea, a few of the ship's sailors tested positive for the novel coronavirus and infections began spreading. The carrier was diverted to Guam where the captain, Brett Crozier, grew increasingly frustrated with a slow emergency response.
Most of his crew remained aboard in tight quarters, and those evacuated were being housed in gymnasiums where COVID-19 cases were already surfacing. Crozier pored through an epidemiological study of how the virus spread through the Diamond Princess cruise ship while docked in Japan with passengers aboard. Like a cruise ship, an aircraft carrier is a floating petri dish for disease.
The captain became convinced that nearly all of his 5,000-member crew should disembark and be quarantined in separate rooms while the ship was thoroughly disinfected. Such steps would comply with new coronavirus guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Navy and Marine Corps health agencies.
According to media reports, the captain implored superiors to speed things up, but it wasn't happening. So Crozier — who, as it would later turn out, was himself falling ill — drafted a March 30 letter to a wide group of Navy leaders, sending up a flare about his ship's predicament.
"Decisive action is required," he wrote. "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."
The Navy did act swiftly after that. Crozier was abruptly relieved of his command.
The emailed letter had been leaked within hours to the San Francisco Chronicle, which published a story March 31. By Wednesday, the Washington Post reported, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly was telling people that President Donald Trump wanted Crozier fired. (Trump acknowledged as much on Saturday, saying of Crozier: “He shouldn’t have been talking that way in a letter. I thought it was terrible what he did.”)
Modly went before cameras Thursday to do just that, evidently ignoring advice that he wait at least until an investigation of Crozier's actions was completed.
In 2017, it took the Navy 24 days to fire the captain of a destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, after a ship collision killed seven sailors, and it took 41 days to dismiss the commander of the USS John McCain, involved in another accident that killed 10. Crozier was out in 72 hours for trying to save his sailors.
So what exactly did Crozier do wrong?
Apparently he cc'd too many people with his letter. "That demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis," the acting Navy secretary said.
And then Modly demonstrated his own brand of leadership with piped-in remarks for the crew of Theodore Roosevelt on Monday where he disparaged the highly regarded Crozier as "too naive or too stupid" to be in command and guilty of "betrayal" — whatever that means.
Modly addressed sailors who, by the hundreds last week, spontaneously cheered their captain as he disembarked after being relieved of command.
The sailors recognized the hero of this story, and it isn't Modly. The acting Navy secretary, who saw his predecessor lose his job after objecting to Trump's interference in the military justice system on behalf of service members accused of war crimes, acted precipitously.
Any decision about Crozier should have at least awaited a thorough investigation. As it is, Modly's move to punish the messenger will have a chilling effect on other Navy commanders who might have legitimate concerns for their sailors during this pandemic.
Crozier's only betrayal was of the temptation not to rock the boat.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Crozier stood up for his ailing sailors. For that, he got fired: Our view