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Captain of USS Roosevelt relieved of command after letter about coronavirus outbreak was leaked

In a Jan. 17, 2020 photo, Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, addresses the crew.

ALEXANDER WILLIAMS/U.S. NAVY

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 2, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt was relieved of command Thursday, two days after his letter that warned sailors could die from the coronavirus outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier was leaked to the media.

Capt. Brett Crozier was dismissed due to loss of confidence and for not using his chain of command to make Navy leaders aware of his concerns about the coronavirus outbreak on the ship, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announced at the Pentagon.

“He did not take care and what that did is it created a…little bit of a panic on the ship,” he said.

The executive officer of the Roosevelt, Capt. Daniel Keeler, will serve as acting commander. Crozier assumed command of the Roosevelt in November from Capt. Carlos Sardiello, who is now traveling to Guam to assume command of the ship, Modly said.

Crozier warned in his letter that the outbreak could kill some sailors, and “if we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”

The contents of Crozier’s letter were first published Tuesday by the San Francisco Chronicle, which reported 150 to 200 Roosevelt sailors had been sickened by the virus, citing an unnamed senior officer aboard the ship.

On Thursday, Modly said there are 114 sailors on the Roosevelt who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Adm. Robert Burke, vice chief of naval operations, will be conduct an investigation into circumstances and the climate across Pacific Fleet to determine why there was a breakdown in the chain of command, Modly said.

Now docked in Guam, the Roosevelt was on a scheduled deployment in the Indo-Pacific region before diverting to the island after the first several virus cases aboard the ship were reported last week. Crozier requested in his letter to have almost all of the crew removed from the ship to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Navy has already moved about 1,000 sailors off the ship and is working to remove an additional 2,700 by Friday.

Modly and Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, told reporters Wednesday that they agreed with Crozier’s assessment of the situation and his decision to send the letter up the Navy’s chain of command. They also indicated the captain would not face punishment unless it was determined that he had leaked the letter to the media.

However, Modly said Thursday that he is not suggesting Crozier leaked the letter to the newspaper.

“I don't think I'll ever know who leaked the information,” he said.

But because Crozier emailed the letter to as many as 30 people, including some outside of his chain of command, he did not protect the information detailed inside or make certain it was not leaked.

“He did not take care and what that did is it created a … little bit of a panic on the ship,” Modly said. “I could reach no other conclusion that Capt. Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the [coronavirus] breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally, when acting professionally was what was needed most at the time.”

During the news conference, Modly also spoke directly to commanding officers throughout the service, saying his decision to fire Crozier is not retribution but about the captain’s judgment and the way in which he sent the letter.

The Navy secretary said he was frustrated the letter portrayed the impression that Navy was not assisting the Roosevelt. He said the Navy located more than 3,000 beds on Guam within a week of the ship arriving at the island due to actions taken before the letter was sent.

“It undermines our efforts and the chain of command’s efforts to address this problem. It creates a panic and creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government's not on the job, and it's just not true,” said Modly, whose chief of staff contacted Crozier on Monday, the same day that letter was sent, to ask whether the captain had all the resources he needed for the crew.

“The [commanding officer] told my chief of staff that he was receiving those resources and he was fully aware of the Navy's response, only asking that he wished the crew could be evacuated faster… and at no time did the [commanding officer] relay the various levels of alarm that I, along with the rest of the world, learned from his letter when it was published by the [commanding officer’s] hometown newspaper two days later,” Modly said.

Modly called Crozier “an honorable man” and spoke directly to the Roosevelt’s crew and their families. He said he is convinced Crozier loves them and “that he had you at the center of his heart and mind in every decision that he has made.”

“But it is my responsibility to ensure that his love and concern for you is matched, if not exceeded by, his sober and professional judgment under pressure,” Modly said.

kenney.caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney