Last week, a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle called and asked me about an urgent four-page letter that Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, a decorated naval aviator and the commanding officer of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, had written to about 30 civilian and military Navy officials, inside and outside his chain of command, asking them to quarantine 90 percent of his ship’s entire crew to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus on his ship.
I responded that I admired Capt. Crozier for putting the welfare of his sailors above his career.
Unfortunately, two days after that article was published with my comments, that turned out to be true.
My answer was based on two factors. First, my own 24 years of active and reserve service in the Navy. Second, was the character of the Trump administration’s appointed civilian leadership in the Department of the Navy and the Department of Defense.
I knew that by selecting Capt. Crozier to command a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Navy was essentially saying that, unless something went terribly wrong during his command of the ship like colliding with another ship, he would be selected for or promoted to Rear Admiral soon after his tour of duty on the ship was over. However, because his letter was sent not only to officials in and out of his direct chain of command to reveal a problem that his superiors were essentially ignoring, he was calling on the people who would decide his fate to account for their reprehensible behavior.
Moreover, based upon how Secretary of Defense Esper has been handling controversial issues since taking over the helm at the Pentagon last summer, I knew he would not stand up for someone who not only embarrassed his Navy superiors but also president, who had downplayed the impact of the virus, as well.
For example, when President Trump diverted more than $10 billion from Congressionally approved projects in the defense budget to build his border wall, Esper did not object and actually defended the decision. These items included military construction projects that contributed to the health and well-being of military families, like housing and schools, and equipment for the National Guard.
Similarly, when President Trump upended the military justice system by pardoning and reducing the sentences of military personnel who had been convicted by their peers of violating the laws of war, Esper said nothing. The Secretary compounded the problem when he fired then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer for trying to prevent the White House from allowing Master Chief Eddie Gallagher, who was convicted by his own peers in the SEAL community for his conduct on the battlefield to keep his Trident, or Special Operations pin.
Capt. Crozier will probably not be promoted to admiral, but when he left the carrier, he received a standing ovation from the sailors on the ship, something I have never seen before. And he has been universally thanked by the parents of those men and women serving on the Roosevelt. And some 85,000 people have signed a petition calling for his reinstatement. I doubt that the acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, who publicly fired Capt. Crozier, on April 2, 2020, nor the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Gilday, who supported the decision one day after saying they would not shoot the messenger, and did not conduct an investigation of the incident, would receive anything but boos.
Along with several other retired officers and many families of the sailors on the Roosevelt, I want to thank Captain Crozier. You made us proud and we hope that your firing will not prevent your peers from speaking truth to power. And we are saddened that you, too have tested positive for the virus.
Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan.