Secretary of Defense Mark Esper left the door open for reinstating former aircraft carrier commanding officer Capt. Brett Crozier, who was relieved of duty last week after he urged the Navy to step up its response to a COVID-19 outbreak on the 4,800-person ship.
“When I replaced the acting Navy secretary three days ago, I called him and the chief of Naval operations into my office I gave them some guidance,” Esper said in an interview with CBS This Morning Friday.
“One of the things I told them is this: No further action will be taken against Capt. Crozier until the investigation is completed. And once that’s completed, we’ll see where that takes us. And so we’ve taken nothing off the table.”
Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday voiced similar sentiments Thursday to reporters, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Esper said that in the next several days he expects Crozier’s chain of command will share with him their findings and recommendations from the investigation conducted by Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Richard Burke.
“My inclination is always to support the chain of command, and to take their recommendations seriously,” Esper said.
Crozier’s letter, first obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, implored the Navy to remove the majority of the ship’s crew and provide individualized isolation for them on shore in Guam — where the ship pulled into port — to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
He noted that a small portion of the crew had been removed from the ship into group quarantine sites, but only one of the locations complied with NAVADMIN guidance.
As a result, Crozier suggested approximately 10 percent of the Roosevelt crew remain on the ship to operate the reactor plant and perform sanitization, among other things, while the rest isolated off Roosevelt.
"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.
Then-Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said the letter was sent up Crozier’s immediate chain of command over a non-secure email, and was copied to 20 to 30 additional recipients. The Navy subsequently announced, on April 2, that Crozier was being relieved of duty.
After Crozier’s ouster, Modly boarded a flight to Guam and told sailors aboard the Roosevelt that Crozier had either intentionally leaked the letter or was “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.” Ultimately, the episode prompted Modly to step down from his post on Wednesday following calls for his resignation by a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
So far, the Navy has not experienced a similar outbreak on other vessels, although there have been few reported cases aboard several other ships.
For example, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten said Thursday there was a “very small number of breakouts” aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz, although the Navy later said the sailors in question had been separated from the rest of the crew and that there were no active COVID-19 cases onboard the ship, Politico reports.
But Hyten, who acknowledged more than 400 members of Theodore Roosevelt’s crew have tested positive for COVID-19, warned that another outbreak on a warship should be expected.
“It’s not a good idea to think that the Teddy Roosevelt is a one-of-a-kind issue,” Hyten told reporters Thursday. “We have too many ships at sea.”
“To think that it will never happen again is not a good way to plan,” Hyten said.
Even so, Esper remained optimistic Friday about the Navy’s approach to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“The last time I spoke to the chief of Naval operations, we have over 90 ships at sea right now and none of them have any problems, no infected crews,” Esper said. “So again, I’m confident that overall the Navy is taking prudent steps to maintain the health of our sailors and to ensure our warships are ready to go.”