The Navy relieved the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt of his command Thursday after a memo he wrote criticizing how top officials handled a coronavirus outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier was leaked to a newspaper.
Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved after acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said he lost confidence in the veteran Naval aviator’s ability to lead the 4,000-member crew of the warship now sitting alongside a dock in Guam as the crew enters a two-week isolation period following dozens of confirmed coronavirus cases.
The Roosevelt’s fate has come to symbolize the struggles the Pentagon is having as it deals with the global pandemic’s impact on the troops and on readiness.
“We require commanders with judgment, maturity and leadership composure under pressure,” Mr. Modly told reporters at a Pentagon briefing to announce the firing.
In the memo, Capt. Crozier pleaded for help and said his crew’s life was in danger because of the pandemic.
“We are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily,” Capt. Crozier wrote.
Navy officials say they were already mobilizing to help the stricken crew when the memo was written and then leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Mr. Modly said his chief of staff in the Pentagon called Capt. Crozier the day he sent the memo to make sure he had everything he needed to ensure the health and safety of the crew.
Rumors of Capt. Crozier’s impending relief had been circulating in the Pentagon earlier in the day but was only officially confirmed late Thursday in an hastily organized press conference.
Although Mr. Modly said he disagreed with some of the more dire statements in the memo, it was proper for him to raise any concerns to his chain of command. However, the manner in which the memo became public effectively ended Capt. Crozier’s long Navy career.
“The letter was sent over non-secure, unclassified email — even though the ship possesses some of the most sophisticated communications equipment in the fleet,” Mr. Modly said. “It wasn’t just ‘sent up the chain of command,’ it was sent and copied to a broad array of other people.”
The abrupt dismissal brought criticism from Capitol Hill, where four top Democrats accused the Navy of an “overreaction.”
“While Captain Crozier clearly went outside the chain of command, his dismissal at this critical moment … is a destabilizing move that will likely put our service members at greater risk and jeopardize our fleet’s readiness,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith and three members of his committee said in a joint statement.
“Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt,” they wrote. “What’s more, we are very concerned about the chilling effect this dismissal will have on commanders throughout the Department of Defense.”
Capt. Crozier is a native of Santa Rosa, California, and Mr. Modly noted that it was the San Francisco Chronicle — which he referred to as the captain’s ‘hometown paper’ — that published the blockbuster memo. But he denied that he was implying Capt. Crozier was the newspaper’s source.
In addition to concerns about operational security, the memo “unnecessarily raised alarm” with the families of the sailors and the Marines. It also misrepresented the facts of what was going on at the time, Mr. Modly said.
“It raised alarm bells unnecessarily. It also created the impression that the navy was not responding,” he said. “It undermines our efforts and the chain of command (and) it creates a panic.”
There are currently 114 sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Capt. Daniel J. Keller, the executive officer, will temporarily take over until the arrival of Rear Adm. (select) Carlos Sardiello — a former captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt who will assume command until a permanent replacement is announced.