Any person familiar with civil-military relations in this administration could have predicted that when Capt. Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, wrote an unclassified email to 20 people inside and outside his chain of command, complaining about the Navy’s slow response to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic on his ship, his career in the Navy would be over. The only question was how and when it would end and what rationale his superiors would use to justify ending it.
On June 19, 2020, approximately three months after the first sailor on board the Roosevelt was diagnosed with COVID-19, the Navy announced that Crozier will not be returned to his command. The announcement by the Navy’s two top officials — Kenneth Braithwaite, the new Navy secretary, and Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations (CNO) — claims that Crozier did not do enough soon enough to prevent the disease from spreading on his ship. Really. Four days after the first COVID-19 diagnosis on the ship on March 22, 2020, Crozier began testing the entire crew and within the next two days, when the Roosevelt docked in Guam, sent eight sailors to the hospital on the island. Moreover, it was only when his two immediate superiors would not let him take more drastic action, including removing 90 percent of the crew from the ship, as he wanted to, because they did not want to take the carrier out of action and jeopardize the mission, that Crozier sent his infamous four-page memo on March 30, 2020. Crozier writes that “the spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating.” Does that sound like someone who did not do enough soon enough?
The aircraft carrier commander will likely never be promoted to rear admiral because he put the welfare of his sailors above his career.
On April 2, 2020, three days after this memo was leaked to the press, not by him, the acting secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, with the support of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, fired Crozier because he believed that once it became public, President Donald Trump, who was being criticized for his slow response to the virus, would fire him. Modly did this in spite of the fact that on April 1, the day before the firing, Gilday said that he was not going to shoot the messenger and that Crozier’s sending the memo up the chain of command would not result in any type of retribution. However, when Modly fired him, the admiral not only did not threaten to resign but kept silent.
Modly’s firing of Crozier, on the other hand, was condemned by several former Navy leaders, including retired Adm. Michael Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. James Stavridis, former NATO commander. More important, when Crozier was forced to leave the ship, the sailors gave him a standing ovation and many parents of the sailors publicly thanked him.
After Modly himself was fired for flying to Guam and giving a profanity-laced speech onboard the Roosevelt, Gilday announced that he, himself, would conduct an investigation of the incident. After a month-long investigation, he recommended that Crozier be given back command of the ship, a decision he said will probably define his term as chief of naval operations.
This did not go over too well with his civilian superiors. Esper declined to endorse his recommendation, and the new acting secretary of the Navy ordered another investigation. Not only did Gilday not complain, but he actually endorsed conducting a new investigation despite the fact that his own investigation took several weeks longer than that of Modly when he fired Crozier.
The officers who should be held responsible for the situation on the Roosevelt are not Crozier or the wing commander and medical personnel on the carrier, but those in the chain of command, specifically the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson. He should be held accountable not only for not supporting Crozier, but for ordering him to go to the port of Danang, Vietnam, for four days, from March 5 through March 9, even though COVID-19 had already been detected in the country and Vietnam shares a border with China, where the virus originated. In addition, Esper bears some responsibility for directing, on Feb. 26, 2020, combatants to tell him before they made decisions about protecting the troops from COVID-19 because he did not want them to contradict Trump, who that day announced that the number of cases in the U.S., which at the time numbered 15, was going to be down to close to zero.
One sailor on the Roosevelt died but many more would have if Crozier had not put his career on the line by speaking up. The same cannot be said of those military and civilian leaders above him who did not step up and continue to throw Crozier under the bus rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.
Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan.
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