WASHINGTON >> It was a send-off for the ages, with hundreds of sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt cheering Capt. Brett E. Crozier, the commander who sacrificed his naval career by writing a letter to his superiors demanding more help as the coronavirus spread through the ship.
The rousing show of support provided the latest gripping scene to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic: the rank and file shouting their admiration for a boss they viewed as putting their safety ahead of his career.
The memes were quick to sprout on social media. On Reddit, one depicted Crozier forced to choose between rescuing his career or his sailors from a burning building; he chooses his sailors. On Twitter, a slew of videos showed Crozier’s walk down the gangway in Guam, most of them depicting him as a hero struck down by his superiors for trying to save the lives of his crew. “Wrongfully relieved of command but did right by sailors,” wrote Twitter user Dylan Castillo, alongside a video of Crozier leaving his ship.
— Dylan Castillo (@Sotero269) April 3, 2020
But in removing Crozier from command, senior Navy officials said they were protecting the historic practice that complaints and requests have to go up a formal chain of command. They argued that by sending his concerns to 20 or 30 people in a message that eventually leaked to news organizations, Crozier showed he was no longer fit to lead the fast-moving effort to treat the crew and clean the ship.
His removal from prestigious command of an aircraft carrier with almost 5,000 crew members has taken on an added significance, as his punishment is viewed by some in the military as indicative of the government’s handling of the entire pandemic, with public officials presenting upbeat pictures of the government’s response, while contrary voices are silenced.
The cheering by the sailors is the most public repudiation of military practices to battle the virus since the pandemic began. At the Pentagon, officials expressed concern about the public image of a Defense Department not doing enough to stay ahead of the curve on the virus.
Notably, the defense of the firing offered by senior Pentagon officials has centered around Crozier not following the chain of command in writing his letter, which found its way to newspapers. In a circuitous explanation, Thomas B. Modly, the acting Navy secretary, said that Crozier’s immediate superior did not know that the captain was going to write the letter, offering that act as an error in leadership and one of the reasons the Navy had lost confidence in the Roosevelt captain.
But a Navy official familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly about it said that the captain had repeatedly asked his superiors for speedy action to evacuate the ship. His letter, the official said, came because the Navy was still minimizing the risk.
Modly insisted that his firing the captain for writing a letter asking for more help does not mean that subordinate officers are not allowed to raise criticisms and ask for assistance. “To our commanding officers,” Modly told reporters Thursday, “it would be a mistake to view this decision as somehow not supportive of your duty to report problems, request help, protect your crews, challenge assumptions as you see fit.”
But the removal of Crozier will likely have a chilling effect on the willingness of commanders to bring bad news to their superiors.
“There’s no question they had the authority to remove him,” Kathleen H. Hicks, a former top Pentagon official in the Obama administration, said in an email. “The issue is one of poor judgment in choosing to do so. They are fueling mistrust in leader transparency, among service members, families, and surrounding/hosting communities.”
Hicks, who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, added that the episode “lays bare the broader incompatibility in the Defense Department’s dual-track approach of attempting to tightly control and centralize its strategic communications at the same time it has adopted a highly decentralized approach to combating the coronavirus.”
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., is a former enlisted Marine who saw heavy combat in Iraq. In an interview today, he described the Navy’s actions in firing Crozier as “dangerous.”
“For the men and women on the Roosevelt and across the Navy, the message is this,” Gallego said. “If the commander is looking out for you and doesn’t go about it the right way he’s going to get punished. It’s dangerous, it’s going to impact morale and retention rates.”
Gallego pointed to the firings of the commanders of the John McCain and the Fitzgerald, two destroyers that were involved in fatal accidents in 2017 that killed 17 sailors. Those firings came after months of investigations, while Crozier was fired within three days of his letter becoming public.
Yet the Trump administration has in several high-profile war crimes cases chosen not to punish those accused. President Donald Trump, for instance, granted clemency to Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murder last year but convicted of a lesser war crime.
For the military, a core issue is that, as the virus spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult to carry on with training and missions.
At U.S. military outposts around the world, commanders have stopped training alongside local forces and instituted other measures to seal off their troops from the virus. Even so, the moves are ultimately half measures as the military, especially those who are deployed, live in shared spaces and can hardly practice the social-distancing restrictions that public health experts recommend to curb the spread of the virus.
That problem is only amplified in the Navy.
Each ship — with confined berthing areas, mess halls and shared bathrooms — is a cramped cell where social distancing is nearly impossible. Once the virus gets on a ship, it is bound to spread, both military officials and infectious disease experts say. Already, Navy officials are worried that other ships may become infected.
Other branches of the military are having issues as well.
Air Force warplanes are flying fewer missions and conducting fewer trainings, operating with split shifts and split crews to limit the exposure of personnel to the virus. The Army has stopped training for some units, the better to limit chances of getting the virus.
As part of his extended explanation of why he removed Crozier, Modly asserted at a news conference Thursday that the release of Crozier’s letter had panicked the crew and family members, and embarrassed the Navy’s leadership.
“It undermines our efforts and the chain of command’s efforts to address this problem and creates a panic,” he said. “And creates a perception that the Navy’s not on the job, the government’s not on the job.”
But videos taken by crew members aboard the Roosevelt and posted on social media today seemed to contradict that assessment.
The sailors on the Roosevelt did not look panicked. Since Crozier’s letter first surfaced, the Navy had evacuated hundreds off the ship, with more each day. During Crozier’s final walk off the ship, many sailors could be seen with their bags packed on the floor next to them as they cheered their departing captain.
It was a surreal scene, beginning with Crozier’s solemn walk through the massive ship’s sprawling hangar bay — a snaking procession that wrapped around a pair of dormant F/A-18 fighter jets and into the cool Guam night.
There was the ship’s bell, and then its whistle. The crew, hundreds of them, some in civilian clothes, others in uniform, slowly saluted as Crozier walked past with a black backpack slung over his left shoulder.
“Captain, United States Navy, departing,” a voice piped in over the loudspeaker. As Crozier reached the gangway, the slender ramp that stretched from ship to shore, he turned back toward his ship. His crew cheered.
The nearly half dozen videos posted to social media, all from different angles amid the throng of sailors, include thundering cheers of “Captain Crozier.” One crew member yells, “Hooyah skipper!” In another video, someone says, “Now that’s how you send off one of the greatest captains you ever had … the GOAT,” using the acronym for Greatest Of All Time. “The man for the people.”