Coronavirus: US Navy upholds firing of Captain Brett Cozier

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The US Navy has upheld the firing of the aircraft carrier captain who urged faster action to protect his crew from a coronavirus outbreak, ending a months-long dramatic episode in the military branch's fight against the pandemic.

The fired captain, Brett Crozier, and the admiral leading the strike group both fell "well short" of expectations. "I will not reassign Captain Brett Crozier as the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, nor will he be eligible for future command," Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, told a Pentagon news conference on Friday, explaining his decision not to reinstate Crozier.

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The spread of the coronavirus on board the carrier while on deployment in the Pacific in March exploded into one of the biggest military leadership crises of recent years.

More than 1,000 members of the crew eventually became infected, and one sailor died. The ship was sidelined for weeks at Guam but recently returned to duty.

Probes and investigations 

Admiral Gilday's decision to hold both Captain Brett Crozier and his boss, Rear Admiral Stuart Baker, accountable is a confirmation of concerns expressed by top Pentagon officials who demanded a deeper investigation last month when the initial probe recommended Crozier's reinstatement as the ship's captain.

U.S. Navy sailors participate in a small arms qualification aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt

US Navy sailors participate in a small arms qualification on board the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Philippine Sea  [US Navy Handout: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Conner D Blake/Reuters]

The investigation, done by Admiral Robert Burke and endorsed on Friday by Gilday, defends the abrupt turnaround on Crozier saying that the more detailed probe uncovered poor decisions he made that failed to stem the outbreak or properly communicate the escalating crisis to senior commanders.

Slow response

It also concludes that the ship's slow response to the virus was not just his fault, and that Baker also failed to take decisive actions to address the problem.

Gilday's recommendations cap a drama that has engulfed the navy for nearly three months, sidelining the carrier for 10 weeks in Guam, and setting off a dramatic series of events that led to Crozier's dismissal, the abrupt resignation of the acting navy secretary who fired him, and the push for a broader review of the Pacific fleet's top commanders and how they handled the virus outbreak.

Based on the findings, Crozier and Baker would be able to remain in the navy and move on to other jobs at their current rank, but the admonishments are likely career-enders for both men. Crozier's firing upset the carrier's crew, and he received an ovation as he walked off the ship.

At least 100 sailors on US aircraft carrier contract COVID-19

The recommendations reflect concerns expressed by Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite who told a Senate committee in early May that the service was in "rough waters" and suffering from leadership failures.

Braithwaite, who the official said endorsed Gilday's report, pledged to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing that he would restore a culture of good order and discipline to the service.

In late April, after a preliminary review, Gilday recommended that Crozier be returned to command the Roosevelt. But Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pressed for a delay and a wider investigation of the coronavirus crisis on the ship, suggesting the need for deeper scrutiny of actions and decisions by senior admirals in the Pacific, a region critical to US national security interests. 

COVID-19 concerns

The COVID-19 outbreak on the Roosevelt was the most extensive and concentrated spread of the virus across the US military. It eventually sent all of the 4,800 crew members ashore for weeks of quarantine, in a systematic progression that kept enough sailors on the ship to keep it secure and running. 

When the coronavirus outbreak was discovered on the Roosevelt, Crozier sent an email to several commanders pleading for more urgent navy action, including the removal of nearly all sailors from the ship to protect their health.

That email was leaked to media, and the acting navy secretary at the time, Thomas Modly, accused Crozier of bad judgement and directed that he be relieved of command on April 2.

Days later, amid an uproar of his handling of the matter, Modly resigned and was replaced by James McPherson. Braithwaite's nomination to be secretary was still pending at the time. He took over earlier this month after he was confirmed by the Senate.

In the report on Friday, Gilday concluded that Crozier did not intentionally leak the email.

On Thursday, two of the ship's aviators ejected from their F/A-18 fighter jet while conducting a training flight and were rescued in the Philippine Sea and found to be in good condition. The incident is under investigation and it is not clear whether the crew's long layoff in Guam or rapid return to sea played any role in the crash.

The Roosevelt's experience with the virus, however, spurred the development of widespread cleaning and health precautions across the military.

It also gave federal health authorities a population of sailors to test, providing greater insight into the science and the spread of the virus.

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