In major reversal, Navy opts to uphold firing of aircraft carrier captain who warned about coronavirus outbreak

Uss Theodore Roosevelt (cvn 71) Flight Operations
200318-N-IW125-2058 PHILIPPINE SEA (March 18, 2020) An F/A-18F Super Hornet, assigned to the “Black Knights” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 154, lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), March 18, 2020. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas V. Huynh/Released)

In a major reversal, the US Navy has decided to fire the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier who warned about the spread of the coronavirus pandemic aboard his ship, a decision that comes after the findings of a preliminary investigation recommended he be reinstated, the service’s two most senior officials announced Friday.

The results of the latest Navy probe faulted Capt. Brett Crozier for several missteps, including not adhering to proper protocols to prevent the pandemic’s spread on the ship, such as social distancing, and being too slow in evacuating sailors from the ship once it arrived in port in Guam, they said.

“I will not reassign Captain Brett Crozier as the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, nor will he be eligible for future command. Captain Crozier will be reassigned,” Adm. Michael Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations told reporters during a Pentagon briefing, which took place shortly after news of the decision broke.

“While I previously believed Captain Crozier should be reinstated, following his relief in April, after conducting an initial investigation, the much broader, deeper investigation that we conducted in the weeks following that had a much deeper scope,” he said, speaking alongside Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite.

The stunning development is yet another twist in a months-long controversy over Crozier’s dismissal and comes after Navy officials confidently recommended he be reinstated as the ship’s commander back in April following an initial probe.

Both Gilday and Braithwaite said the Navy failed to investigate the matter properly during its preliminary review.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper was briefed on the findings Friday and “believes the investigation to have been thorough and fair and supports the Navy’s decisions based on their findings,” Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

What the investigation found

Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Navy officials were ultimately right to conduct a deeper investigation into the matter.

“The Navy was right to conduct a thorough investigation into the spread of COVID-19 on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the actions Navy leaders took to keep Sailors safe. It is clear that there are lessons to be learned and improvements that must be made,” he wrote.

“When this incident first emerged, I declined to comment on the status of Captain Crozier. I do not believe it is appropriate for Members of Congress, who are outside the chain of command, to comment on individual personnel actions. Doing so is too often unfair to the individual service members involved and their leadership. I continue to hold that view,” the Texas Republican added.

The deeper investigation concluded that Crozier and the Strike Group Commander, Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, “did not do enough, soon enough to fulfill their primary obligation … and they did not effectively carry out our guidelines for events spread of the virus,” according to Gilday.

“Both Admiral Baker and Captain Crozier fell well short of what we expect of those in command. Had I known then what I know today, I would have not made that recommendation to reinstate Captain Crozier. Moreover, if Captain Crozier were still in command today, I would be relieving him,” he said.

Though Crozier has been relieved of command of the ship, he is expected to remain in the Navy.

Baker will also be held accountable for poor decision-making and his promotion is being put on hold, the Navy said in a statement.

“They were slow, eggressing sailors off the ship. And they failed to move sailors to available safer environments quickly,” Gilday said. “When obstacles arose, both failed to tackle the problem head on and to take charge. And in a number of instances they placed crew comfort in front of crew safety.”

“Additionally, Captain Crozier exercised questionable judgment When he released sailors from quarantine on the ship, which put his crew at higher risk, and may have increased the spread of the virus of aboard the Theodore Roosevelt,” he added.

Inside the Navy’s reversal

Crozier was initially fired in April for what the acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who subsequently resigned, said was poor judgment for too widely disseminating a warning about the spread of virus aboard his vessel, a warning that eventually made its way into the press.

Several defense officials told CNN that the Navy initially recommended that Crozier be restored to command of the carrier following a preliminary inquiry later that month.

Officials told CNN that the Navy was so confident that the Pentagon leadership would endorse its recommendation to reinstate Crozier that it was forced to scuttle a planned press conference to announce the results after Defense Secretary Mark Esper did not immediately endorse the findings, helping to convince then acting Navy Secretary James E. McPherson to launch a broader inquiry.

The fallout from the outbreak aboard the Roosevelt, which spread to more than 1,000 crew members before the Navy ceased publishing data on the number of infected sailors, sparked a major controversy within the Navy, leading to Modly’s resignation.

Crozier’s memo which set off the chain of the events warned Navy leadership that decisive action was needed to save the lives of the ship’s crew. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors,” it read, three US defense officials confirmed to CNN.

Modly resigned days later over his handling of the incident, actions which included a $240,000 trip to Guam where he slammed Crozier and admonished sailors for giving Crozier a rousing send off in public remarks to the crew.

“I believe if there is ever a time to ask for help it is now regardless of the impact on my career,” Crozier wrote in his email, the contents of which a US official directly familiar with the message confirmed to CNN.

The email was addressed to Crozier’s immediate superior Baker and several other senior Navy officials in the region.

The investigation did not fault Crozier for sending the email and attached memo but faulted him for not having all the facts in hand, leaving off people that needed to see it, and not warning Baker in advance that he was sending It.

Gilday reiterated Friday that Crozier was not relieved because of the email or the subsequent leak but he made clear they were what sparked the controversy.

“The determination that I just mentioned about his not being reinstated to command, and the action holding the strike group commander’s promotion in advance, that’s not about the email that he sent, and it’s certainly not about the fact that it leaked,” he said.

“Captain Crozier hit send once in that email. Captain Crozier did not leak that email or intend for it to be leaked. So at that time, I felt that the facts did not justify relief based on the narrow scope,” Gilday added.

In his memo, Crozier implored Navy leaders to take immediate steps to address the situation.

“Decisive action is required. Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed US nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure,” his memo said.

“This is a necessary risk. It will enable the carrier and air wing to get back underway as quickly as possible while ensuring the health and safety of our Sailors. Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care,” Crozier added.

Video of Crozier receiving raucous applause from his crew while departing the aircraft carrier following his initial ouster went viral on the internet and several lawmakers had called for him to be reinstated.