Captain Unlikely to Be Punished over Candid Coronavirus Letter, Navy Leaders Say

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Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, addresses news media.
Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, addresses local news media at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, Jan. 17, 2020. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier)

The Navy's top leaders aren't thrilled that a four-page letter from a ship's captain pleading for help with a novel coronavirus outbreak was leaked to the media this week, but they said they need commanding officers speaking out about challenges during the unprecedented pandemic.

Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, was within his rights to raise concerns with his chain of command about a troubling situation on his ship, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said Wednesday.

In his letter, obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, which posted it on its website this week, Crozier made an urgent plea to evacuate his crew after cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, rapidly spread onboard his carrier.

"I don't know who leaked the letter to the media -- that would be something that would violate the principles of good order if he were responsible for that, but I don't know that," Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told reporters. "The fact that he wrote the letter of his to his chain of command to express his concerns would absolutely not result in any type of retaliation."

Related: 'Sailors Do Not Need to Die': Carrier Captain Pleads for Help as Virus Cases Surge

Crozier, in his letter, said the Navy was risking the trust it has built with sailors if more wasn't done to look out for the crew's health on the Roosevelt. The aircraft carrier was operating in the Asia-Pacific region when sailors began testing positive for COVID-19 after the ship made a port call in Vietnam in early March.

Modly hit back against the idea that the Navy isn't looking out for its personnel, calling it "not the truth."

"It's disappointing to have him say that," Modly said. "We've been working very, very hard with the ship, with the command structure, to ensure that that's exactly what we're doing. It's our priority. We need the sailors to be safe, we need them to be healthy, and we need that ship to be operational.

"We're doing everything we can," he added.

The Roosevelt is now in Guam. Modly said 2,700 crew members are being evacuated off the ship. About a quarter of the crew has been tested for the illness so far, and 93 members were positive.

Most of those crew members showed symptoms, Modly said, but seven did not. Testing will continue, he added.

The Navy's plan to leave about 1,100 crew members on the ship falls short of Crozier's request to evacuate all but 10% while it was sanitized. Modly and Gilday defended the decision to leave more crew members aboard.

"This ship has weapons on it, it has munitions on it, it has expensive aircraft, it has a nuclear power plant," Modly said. "It requires a certain number of people on that ship to maintain the safety and security of the ship."

Gilday said Crozier's letter pointed to a breakdown in communications between the captain and his chain of command. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith said the captain should have first communicated with families through the command's ombudsman so panicked family members didn't read about the situation on the carrier in media reports.

Ultimately though, Gilday added, Crozier is responsible for the safety of his crew.

"That's an extraordinary responsibility and ... he takes it very seriously," Gilday said. "So if he has a difference of approach and he thinks he has a better way to do it, and if he doesn't feel that we're acting at the speed of urgency, then absolutely we need to know about that and we need to adjust."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Read more: US Navy Evacuating Virus-Struck Aircraft Carrier Roosevelt

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