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Navy Brass Felt Blindsided by Fired Carrier Captain’s Emailed Appeal

The commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt had two direct calls with top Navy aides before his warning about the dire situation on board leaked publicly.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 3, 2019. Saul Loeb/AFP

Senior Navy officials were blindsided by a written plea for help from the commander of the coronavirus-wracked USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier after they assured him his crew would be cared for in two direct calls earlier this week, Foreign Policy has learned. 

A source familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy that Capt. Brett Crozier had multiple conversations with the chief of staff to acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly on Monday, just hours before his plea for help leaked in the San Francisco Chronicle. Crozier was fired as captain of the ship two days after the letter was leaked.

The message from the Navy to Crozier on Monday was “call us any time day or night,” the source said, as the service’s chain of command looked for single-bed rooms in nearby hotels to individually quarantine sailors coming off the ship and slow the spread of the virus.

Crozier was given Modly’s personal cell phone number to raise further concerns, the source added, but there was no contact between the captain and Navy brass between that time and when Crozier’s letter was sent by email to higher-ups and some crew.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

“I think sort of most disappointing to me is that I had set up a direct line to him that if he felt that anything, way before his letter was written, that if he felt anything wasn’t going well and he needed help, that he could reach out to me directly,” Modly told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Friday morning. “And he did not do that.

Yet even as Modly is making the rounds in the media to justify the decision to remove Crozier from his post, there is palpable anger over the captain’s dismissal among service members aboard the Roosevelt and their families. In purported videos of the captain’s departure posted to Facebook, Crozier is seen walking down the Roosevelt’s gangway for the last time as hundreds of service members chant his name in unison. By Friday afternoon, an online petition to reinstate Crozier had reached nearly 90,000 signatures. 

A mother of a Roosevelt sailor told Foreign Policy that hundreds of troops were being quarantined aboard the ship and being checked for high temperatures twice a day when the letter was sent, and not enough was being done by the Navy to keep the crew safe. “It felt like a lot of politics to me and not enough action,” she said. “I believe that the Crozier memo expedited the whole thing.” 

“When I hear the secretary of the Navy say that [the captain] made a bad judgment call I don’t necessarily agree,” she added. “This was not a man who made bad judgment calls.”  

The Navy’s chain of command was looking at options to provide housing for sailors leaving the ship in Guam and trying to figure out how to supply enough food to the crew when the letter leaked, a situation that has been complicated by scarce accommodations. Navy officials also sought to get enough medical personnel to Guam to check in on quarantined sailors. Modly said this week he expects 2,700 sailors to leave the ship in the coming days, more than half of the crew.

Navy leaders have not determined how Crozier’s letter leaked, but Modly said in a press conference on Thursday that he had “lost confidence” in the dismissed skipper’s decision-making and judgment over the incident. While the email was not classified, Modly slammed Crozier’s decision to copy 20 to 30 people not in the direct chain of command, enhancing the likelihood of its public release. Portions of the message pointing to the ship’s readiness for combat should have been classified, the source familiar with the conversations told Foreign Policy, and Crozier made “an emotional argument” by saying that 50 sailors on board could die. 

According to official figures released by the Navy on Thursday, 45 percent of the service’s coronavirus cases are sailors of the USS Roosevelt. Modly told Hewitt on Friday morning that 140 people aboard the Roosevelt had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Modly made the decision to fire Crozier no later than Thursday morning, the source said, and spent most of the day communicating his intentions to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and informing leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill. A Democratic aide confirmed that Modly communicated the decision to fire Crozier to House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith before the decision was formally announced. It is not immediately clear if there will be follow-on action from the committee as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command launches a review of the “command climate” in the region. 

But a former official who spoke to Foreign Policy said that Modly’s contention that he gave Crozier his personal contact information went around a chain of command that would normally go through the U.S. 7th Fleet in Japan and invited retribution against the skipper even before the letter was sent. 

“If he uses that number and calls the secretary, his career is dead that instant,” a former high-ranking naval official told Foreign Policy. “Either you want to be shot or you want to be hung.” The former official said Modly should have completed an investigation of the incident before removing Crozier, who will remain in the Navy but at another post. 

Meanwhile, the coronavirus infection has continued to spread on board the carrier, and Modly said in his interview with Hewitt that he has named a replacement for the fired skipper. The Navy is not looking at an operational pause due to the coronavirus, Moldy told Reuters on Friday. 

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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