Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly issued a series of sharp comments Monday while speaking to Theodore Roosevelt sailors about their ship’s recently fired commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier.
Modly’s comments, which were delivered over the aircraft carrier’s 1MC, come in the wake of a leaked letter Crozier penned pleading for U.S. intervention to stifle a COVID-19 outbreak on the 4,800-person ship.
Cozier’s letter, which was first published by the San Francisco Chronicle, was reportedly sent up the captain’s immediate chain of command in a “non-secure, unclassified” email that included “20 or 30” additional recipients, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told reporters Thursday.
“It was a betrayal," Modly told sailors Monday, according to a recording of the message obtained by Navy Times.
“And I can tell you one other thing: because he did that he put it in the public’s forum and it is now a big controversy in Washington, D.C. If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t going to get out to the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either A, too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternative is that he did this on purpose.”
Crozier’s letter, penned when only a small portion of the ship’s crew had been evacuated, urged the Navy to remove the majority of the ship’s sailors save for approximately 10 percent of the crew who would remain onboard to operate critical systems. The remainder would move into isolated quarantine in Guam.
"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," Crozier wrote in the letter.
In response, the Navy said it was working to evacuate a total of 2,700 sailors from the ship, but stressed that the entire crew could not depart the ship.
The service subsequently made the decision to fire Crozier, who was cheered by the crew of the hulking aircraft carrier as walked along the gangway and departed the ship for the last time.
“Okay, that’s just not acceptable. … When I have a commanding officer who’s responsible for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, with all that lethality and all that responsibility … that demonstrated extremely poor judgement in the middle of a crisis,” Modly told reporters last week.
Crozier’s hasty dismissal prompted immediate backlash from lawmakers in the House Armed Services Committee who accused Modly of acting irrationally.
“Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt," the committee’s statement read.
“What’s more, we are very concerned about the chilling effect this dismissal will have on commanders throughout the Department of Defense. Dismissing a commanding officer for speaking out on issues critical to the safety of those under their command discourages others from raising similar concerns.”
More than 250,000 people have since signed a petition calling for Crozier’s reinstatement.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in an interview with CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday that the White House did not push for Crozier’s ouster and said Modly “laid out very reasonably and very deliberately the reasons” for removing Crozier.
The unceremonious conclusion to Crozier’s command marked the end of tumultuous nine-day unraveling of one of the Navy’s most stalwart vessels.
On March 24 the command first reported that three of its sailors had tested positive for COVID-19. The infected crew were airlifted off of the ship as a precaution, but within one week confirmed cases in the ship’s tight quarters spiked to nearly 100.
Navy officials responded by ordering the carrier to port in Guam, just over two weeks after the Roosevelt visited Da Nang, Vietnam. The decision to continue as scheduled with the Vietnam port call was made at a time when the country had only 16 confirmed cases, all of which were reportedly confined to the northern city of Hanoi, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said.
Pierside in Guam, Crozier earnestly wrote the letter that would cost him his job within a matter of days.
“It raised alarm bells unnecessarily,” Modly told reporters last week.
“It undermines our efforts and the chain of command’s efforts to address this problem, and creates a panic and this perception that the Navy’s not on the job, that the government’s not on the job, and it’s just not true.”
Modly issued a statement Monday concerning his address to the Roosevelt sailors after the transcript and audio of the speech began circulating.
“The spoken words were from the heart, and meant for them,” he said.
“I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis. Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand. I ask, but don’t expect, that people read them in their entirety.”
As of Monday, 173 sailors aboard the Roosevelt have tested positive for COVID-19, Navy officials said. Approximately 40 percent of the ship’s crew is still awaiting testing.
On Sunday, it was reported that Capt. Crozier was among those confirmed to have contracted the novel coronavirus.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.