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Navy Upholds Ouster of Virus-Racked Carrier’s Captain

The fired commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt failed to “take charge” in responding to the coronavirus outbreak aboard the ship, the Navy found in an investigation.

Capt. Brett Crozier
Capt. Brett Crozier, then commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, addresses the crew on Nov. 14, 2019. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

The U.S. Navy will not reinstate the former skipper of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Capt. Brett Crozier, who was fired in March after raising alarm with higher-ups about the coronavirus outbreak abroad the ship, the Navy’s top civilian and military official said on Friday.

The Navy will also not proceed with the promotion of Rear Adm. Stu Baker, the senior officer aboard the Roosevelt, to a two-star rank. Adm. Bob Burke, the vice chief of naval operations, led the study. Crozier will also not be eligible for further command.

Acknowledging that Crozier and Burke, the strike group commander, faced “unprecedented” challenges in battling the virus aboard tight quarters of the carrier, Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday said that neither man did enough to fulfill his obligations to get sailors off the ship.

“It is my belief that both Adm. Baker and Capt. Crozier fell short of what we expect in command,” Gilday said. “If Capt. Crozier were still in command today, I would be relieving him.”

“Both failed to tackle the problem head on and take charge. They were driven by the problem instead of driving decisions,” he added, though Crozier’s initial removal from his post was not related to his ability to enforce social distancing guidelines. 

The news marks a shift after an initial investigation led by Gilday recommended that Crozier be reinstated as the skipper of the ship. The captain was originally fired in April by then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who said he had been blindsided by Crozier’s appeal to offload most of the ship’s crew that leaked in the San Francisco Chronicle.

But Gilday—who said Crozier did not leak his email to the press—owed the reversed recommendation to the narrow scope of the prior investigation, which he said was focused primarily on the fired skipper’s letter, not how the Roosevelt’s leaders handled the outbreak of the virus.

Asked why the initial probe was not wider, Navy leaders said the “emotional” nature of the case may have gotten in the way. “A rush to judgment perhaps became part of the equation,” said Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, who added that the White House was not consulted during the deeper review. 

Modly himself resigned just days later after traveling to speak to the Roosevelt’s crew where the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was docked in Guam, delivering a broadside railing against Crozier. His successor, acting Navy Secretary James McPherson, then opted to extend the investigation, delaying Crozier’s return to command. Braithwaite, President Donald Trump’s former ambassador to Norway, was confirmed as Navy secretary by the Senate in May.

Yet Gilday, who said that Crozier’s email was “unnecessary,” appeared to reach conclusions from the expanded investigation that mirrored some of what Modly said in firing Crozier in the first place. Modly insisted in April that he gave Crozier his direct phone number as the Navy brass arranged beds for the crew in Guam when the letter about the dire state of affairs aboard the ship was emailed out.

“I was not impressed by the slow egress off the ship [and] the lack of a plan to do so,” Gilday said. He said the skipper “exercised questionable judgment” by releasing his crew from quarantine too soon. Crozier insisted that his crew get hotel rooms on the island, Gilday said, further slowing the process.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he thought the investigation was thorough and fair and supported the Navy’s findings.

The arrival of the virus marked a major operational shift for the U.S. Navy, as the Pentagon canceled port visits for aircraft carriers, after crews likely brought the virus aboard the ship during a port visit to Vietnam in March. But the Navy does not have an understanding of who “patient zero” was, Gilday said. 

The ship finally embarked in June after spending nearly three months in Guam to deal with the caseload of recovering sailors. More than 25 percent of the Roosevelt’s crew eventually tested positive for COVID-19, and one service member aboard the ship died from the disease. A subsequent study found that 60 percent of sailors had antibodies for the virus, the spread of which prompted new social distancing rules aboard Navy ships.  

“This study is in line with previous outbreaks on cruise ships which reported undetected transmission of COVID-19 due to mild and asymptomatic infection,” the Navy reported in early June.

Crozier, who contracted COVID-19 while aboard the ship, was later moved to an administrative job in San Diego but allowed to retain his rank. The decision is not likely to be popular among the crew of the Roosevelt, as Crozier received applause from his sailors when he departed the ship for the last time in April.

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

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