The leaked letter penned by the former commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt landed on nearly every news outlet within 24 hours of it being first published by the San Francisco Chronicle.
“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” Capt. Brett Crozier wrote in the letter, which was attached to an email addressed to numerous recipients. “If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors.”
In his message, the captain proposed that Navy officials order the evacuation of the majority of the ship’s sailors, save for approximately 10 percent of the crew who would remain onboard to operate critical systems like its nuclear reactor.
Crozier was fired days later, on April 2, by former Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who informed reporters at the Pentagon of his decision due to the wide distribution of the communication over a “non-secure, unclassified” email that included “20 or 30” additional recipients.
“It was a betrayal," Modly told Roosevelt sailors over the ship’s 1MC intercom during a visit to Guam days later. “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.”
According to a Washington Post report Thursday, however, Modly characterized the dissemination of Crozier’s email as significantly more careless than the distribution list actually implied.
The email, which was copied to seven other Navy captains, was primarily addressed to Crozier’s commanding officer, Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino, and Naval Air Forces commander Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller.
“I fully realize that I bear responsibility for not demanding more decisive action the moment we pulled in, but at this point my only priority is the continued well-being of the crew and embarked staff,” Crozier wrote in the email, which was first obtained by the Post.
“I believe if there is ever a time to ask for help it is now regardless of the impact on my career.”
Less than a week before sending the email that would cost him his job, Crozier wrote family members of sailors to inform them that the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 onboard TR had been discovered, according to the Washington Post.
“Yesterday evening, a few sailors did the right and brave thing, reporting to medical they were experiencing flu-like symptoms,” Crozier wrote in a message obtained by the Post. “These sailors were tested . . . and this morning the results of the tests indicated positive results for coronavirus.”
On March 24, the first three cases of COVID-19 onboard the carrier were announced by the Pentagon. Within 24 hours, the number of infected more than doubled, prompting Navy leadership in Washington to order Crozier to sideline the 4,800-person ship in Guam.
Each subsequent day yielded more confirmed cases. As of Thursday, 655 sailors have tested positive, a number that includes the ship’s fired skipper, who is now isolated in quarantine.
Prior to sending the email, Crozier reportedly contacted an unnamed admiral in Washington as Roosevelt sat pierside in Guam. The following day, March 29, the captain emphasized the urgency of the rapidly evolving situation in a conversation with Modly’s chief of staff, Robert Love.
Unwilling to stall any longer, Crozier fired off his email just as Modly and Navy leadership were debating which course of action would expedite the safe removal of the carrier’s crew.
“While I understand that there are political concerns with requesting the use of hotels on Guam to truly isolate the remaining 4,500 Sailors 14+ days, the hotels are empty, and I believe it is the only way to quickly combat the problem,” Crozier wrote in the email obtained by the Post.
A senior defense official, meanwhile, suggested that Crozier’s plan of immediate evacuation was unrealistic.
“The problem was there was no place to put them at that time,” the senior defense official told the Washington Post. “The governor of Guam had started working with the hotel industry to get the hotels reopened. But that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Crozier, who was dismissed as commanding officer of Theodore Roosevelt within 48 hours of sending the email, departed the ship to rousing applause and chants of his name as he walked along the carrier’s gangway for perhaps the final time.
Modly’s last-minute trip to Guam to offer Roosevelt sailors a profanity-laced explanation for their captain’s hasty dismissal reportedly came with an airfare tab of $243,151.65, according to estimates obtained by the Washington Post.
Modly expensed the trip before formally submitting a waiver to side-step a policy that limits “senior officials to one air crew per trip to curb the cost of travel by military aircraft,” USA Today reported Tuesday. The former Navy secretary took the trip while only informing the “Pentagon orally that he intended to use more than one crew.”
The Navy’s top civilian resigned amid pressure by lawmakers on Capitol Hill following his infamous speech, the audio of which was obtained by Military Times. Now, in the aftermath of his ill-advised trip and potential exposure to COVID-19, Modly, too, is in quarantine.
Crozier, meanwhile, is not being ruled out for potential reinstatement as the skipper of his former crew.
According to a New York Times report Wednesday, Modly’s rapid dismissal of Crozier in advance of the completion of an investigation was poorly received by Pentagon leadership, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday.
Modly reportedly ignored the opposition of Milley and Gilday due to a belief that President Donald Trump wanted Crozier fired.
Gilday, who is currently reviewing the results of the Navy’s investigation, is expected to make a decision this week regarding Crozier’s future.
Speaking Thursday to NBC’s Today show, Defense Secretary Mark Esper would not rule out the possibility of restoring Crozier to his previous role, one currently held on a interim basis by the ship’s former commanding officer, Rear Adm. Select Carlos Sardiello.
“I’ve got to keep an open mind with regard to everything,” Esper told NBC’s Today. “We’ve got to take this one step at a time, let the investigation within the Navy conclude ... and we’ll take things as they can, and we’ll make very reasoned opinions and judgments as this progresses.”
Gilday echoed those sentiments last week in a call with reporters, saying, “I am taking no options off the table as I review that investigation. I think that’s my responsibility — to approach it in a way that’s with due diligence to make sure that it’s completely fair and as unbiased as I can possibly make it.”
On Thursday, Navy officials identified the first Roosevelt sailor to succumb to COVID-19.
Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Charles Robert Thacker, Jr., 41, died April 13 at U.S. Naval Hospital Guam, the service announced.
Thacker, a native of Fort Smith, Arkansas, tested positive for COVID-19 on March 30. He was subsequently removed from the ship and placed in quarantine. On April 9, he was found unresponsive and moved to the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Thacker’s spouse, who is an active-duty service member stationed in San Diego, was flown to Guam on April 11 and was by his side when he passed.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.