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The USS Theodore Roosevelt Affair: Only Questions Remain

Players were swept up in the moment and acted rashly – but perhaps answers will be found soon.

When the commander of a deployed aircraft carrier is relieved in the middle of a medical crisis on board his ship, that’s a big deal. And the subsequent drama took place while the Defense Department is fully engaged in the Wuhan COVID-19 pandemic. Why did the firing happen? What prompted the captain’s behavior to merit dismissal? Why was the person ordering the firing of the Acting Secretary of the Navy and not the captain’s immediate superior? The firestorm of conjecture, assertions, and vitriol over the removal of Captain Brett Crozier, Commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, raises a host of questions.

Deputy Editor Bradley Peniston of Defense One has provided a helpful timeline of events and discussion. Captain Brett Crozier faced a very daunting challenge. He commanded the power of the United States, a deployed nuclear aircraft carrier. His crew of 4,865 seamen, noncommissioned officers, and officers was slowly but steadily becoming infected with the Wuhan COVID-19 following a port visit to Danang, Vietnam. On March 22, the first sailor onboard the Roosevelt became ill with the virus. Two sailors were diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 24 and five more on March 25. The Roosevelt entered port at Guam, a planned visit. There was no shore leave for the crew, except for those with the virus being treated at Naval Hospital Guam. Meanwhile, the Navy is finding more cases of the illness aboard ships.

The leadership within the Navy, including Acting Secretary of the Navy Tom Modly, was working with Captain Crozier to address the medical emergency on the Roosevelt throughout.

The cases of the virus aboard his ship were growing. Crozier’s perception, apparently, was of lack of command urgency in the operation to get the infected sailors off the ship. His concern continued despite conference calls, discussions within the captain’s chain of command, and assurances from the most senior leadership in the Navy that he would get support.

Nonetheless, Captain Crozier felt compelled to pen an unclassified letter attached to an email with “20 – 30” addressees inside and outside the chain of command. The letter, incredible as it may sound, was leaked to the San Francisco Examiner. For many in Captain Crozier’s chain of command, this was the first they had heard of the gravity of his concern. In fact, Captain Crozier’s immediate commander, Rear Adm. Stuart P. Baker, was embarked aboard the Roosevelt with Crozier, but the captain did not feel obliged to inform him. Why? Because, as Captain Crozier, himself put it, Baker would not have agreed with sending the letter. That’s justification for removal.

The letter caught Modly by surprise. To put it mildly, Modly was not happy. He believed that Crozier failed to act with sound professional judgment and subsequently directed down the chain of command that Crozier was to be relieved. Then, Secretary Modly flew to Guam and spoke to the Roosevelt’s crew using inartful language and was not well received. The fallout from his address to the crew was that the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper requested that Modly apologize to the crew of the Roosevelt and their families. The hullaballoo that resulted from the chattering gallery resulted in Secretary Modly resigning. That’s the short of it.

Only the questions remain. Retired U.S. Army General Jack Keane, on Fox News, put the episode and its aftermath in a measured and thoughtful context: “Everybody involved here was well-intentioned.” Modly had the authority to have Captain Crozier fired. But why did the highest-ranking leader in the Navy believe he needed to get in the middle of the fray? Modly’s point was that if he, as the civilian head of the Navy, did not take charge and make decisions, someone higher would. The Navy would appear indecisive, lacking leadership. Fair point. Why, however, didn’t the no less than four admirals in the command chain, including the commander of the Pacific Fleet, take charge and initiate the removal?  At a minimum, where was the uniformed leadership counsel? The former acting secretary was essentially home alone, holding down both the under secretary of the Navy and the secretary of the Navy positions.

Going to the crux of the matter, even General Keane asked, “Why would he write a letter after he has had plenty of dialogue with his chain of command on a non-secure net and then copy people on that letter who are not in his chain of command and some of them are subordinate to him?” Captain Crozier, however, in writing the unclassified letter, revealed Roosevelt’s combat capability to U.S. adversaries in the region.

This incident is unfortunate and should have been avoided. Players were swept up in the moment and did not take a step back to assess what was going on. As one of his last official acts, Modly directed the Vice CHO to investigate the entire episode. Perhaps answers will be forthcoming.

(The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.)

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Read more from Dave Patterson.

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