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Troubled Waters

Posted by Jacky Chia on


FILE – Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly resigns after apologizing for insults made towards relieved Captain Brett Crozier, onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier currently docked in Guam. To date, 93% of the carrier’s crew have been tested for the COVID-19 infection, with 286 of them – including Captain Crozier – testing positive. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

United States Acting Secretary of the Navy (SecNav) Thomas B. Modly resigned from office on the morning of April 7th, 2020, after his mishandling of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (abbreviated TR) aircraft carrier situation led to mass outrage from active-duty Sailors, former Navy officers, Members of Congress and the public alike.

On Monday, Acting SecNav Modly flew to the carrier docked in Guam to address the crewmembers in person, just four days after ordering the TR’s Commanding Officer CAPT. Brett Crozier to be relieved over an urgent request for action. In his 15-minute speech delivered via the on-board 1MC public address system, Modly attempted to explain to the crew that Navy leaders were working to get Sailors off the ship to seek accommodation and medical aid on Guam. To date, 286 Sailors have tested positive for the COVID-19 infection including relieved CAPT. Crozier, with more than 2,500 still remaining on-board the carrier.

In his four-page unclassified memo sent to more than 20 Navy officers on March 30th, it was CAPT. Crozier’s professional view that more lives would be put in danger should the near-5000 strong complement not be promptly evacuated off the carrier and treated. Since the first reported COVID-19 case on-board the TR on March 22nd, the Captain had felt that his chain-of-command was not acting decisively to control the rapidly-developing coronavirus situation, compelling him to write the call for action.

As part of Carrier Strike Group Nine’s Indo-Pacific deployment, the USS Theodore Roosevelt had previously made a port call in Da Nang, Vietnam earlier on March 5th, when no new cases of COVID-19 infection had been reported in the country at the time. It was only three days later after the TR’s crew had disembarked for liberty or shore leave did health officials find new coronavirus cases in Vietnam – nine infected, two of which being tourists from Britain. Hence, a temperature screening regime was implemented for all Sailors returning from liberty before they were allowed to board the carrier. All returning Sailors passed the temperature screening, and the carrier departed port on March 9th, bound for Guam.

With the number of Sailors testing positive for COVID-19 on-board the carrier whilst en-route to U.S. territory, the Captain came up with a proposed contingency plan. As put forth in his memo, CAPT. Crozier called for 90% of the complement be disembarked on housing facilities on Naval Base Guam to undergo quarantine and testing for infection, with the remaining 10% kept on-board as a skeleton crew to perform core carrier functions. This approach would serve to sustain Carrier Strike Group Nine’s operational readiness, while keeping the viral spread in check and providing timely medical care to the carrier crew. The Captain gave his word in his bottom line up-front that the carrier’s operational readiness would not fall short as a result of his proposed measures, stating “If required, the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT would embark all assigned Sailors, set sail, and be ready to fight and beat any adversary that dares to challenge the US or our allies”. CAPT. Crozier explained that “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”. Nonetheless, it was of the Acting SecNav’s and U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander’s opinion that such measures would compromise the defensive posture taken by the Fleet in the Indo-Pacific theatre, therefore being a No-Go. RDML. Stuart Baker, CAPT. Crozier’s immediate superior and commander of Carrier Strike Group Nine, was not informed of the proposal until the email was circulated to him later that day. The memo was sent to his carrier staff as well as a number of Navy officers outside his chain-of-command, which the President and Acting SecNav publicly denounced as an act of “poor judgement”.

Acting SecNav Modly held a press conference with Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) ADM. Michael Gilday on April 1st, discussing events surrounding the leaked memo. ADM. Gilday says he is not inclined to mete out punishment for CAPT. Crozier as he was able to understand the Captain’s intent through the memo, and is instead focused on making arrangements with the local government on Guam to provide additional quarantine accommodation and treatment for the Sailors. “We’re not looking to shoot the messenger here,” he said. Modly indicated that they have just over 1,000 crewmembers off the carrier as of noon that day, and planned to have 2,700 personnel disembarked on Guam within the next two days. As of April 4th, the number of TR personnel disembarked stood at 1,548, well short of the Acting SecNav’s planned figure. ADM. Gilday clarified that his Command staff had been holding twice-daily “synchronization sessions” which provided the latest information about COVID-19 developments to all the four-, three- and two-star Admirals. It was in the CNO’s opinion that “there was a communications breakdown, potentially, with the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt… the misunderstanding, perhaps, was the requirement at speed to get people off the ship”.

Acting SecNav Modly informed Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Mark T. Esper that his direction was to relieve CAPT. Crozier of his command, a move which the SecDef voiced support for over the phone. The Captain himself tested positive for the COVID-19 infection three days after his dismissal, further reinforcing his point about the deteriorating medical situation on the carrier.

During his shipboard address, Modly then made personal attacks on CAPT. Crozier, mentioning that he was “too naïve or too stupid to be a Commanding Officer of a ship like this”. Immediately drawing flak from the crewmembers present, the Acting SecNav noted their deep resentment towards him, saying “You are no obligation to love your leadership, only to respect it. You are under no obligation to like your job, only to do it… But being angry is not your duty. Your duty is to each other, and to this ship, and to the nation that built it for you to protect them”.

Modly was directed by SecDef Esper to issue a public apology later that evening, after word of his speech got out to CNN and social media site Task & Purpose. In his apology statement, Modly attempted to explain his position “Captain Crozier is smart and passionate. I believe, precisely because he is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship…I also want to apologise directly to Captain Crozier, his family, and the entire crew of the Theodore Roosevelt for any pain my remarks may have caused”.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and several other House lawmakers expressed their disapproval for Modly after learning of his speech, with Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith saying “I no longer have confidence in Acting Secretary Modly’s leadership of the Navy and believe he should be removed from his position”. Likewise, former Republican Congressman Justin Amash stated that “He should resign or be removed immediately”. Democratic Senators had also raised a formal request to the Department of Defense’s Inspector General to open a Congressional Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding CAPT. Crozier’s relief of command.

The following day, Acting SecNav Modly handed in his resignation letter to SecDef Esper, which he accepted. Esper stated “He resigned on his own accord, putting the Navy and the sailors above self so that the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the Navy, as an institution, can move forward”. On the night of April 7th, Modly published a memo admitting that he “lost situational awareness”, that the U.S. Navy had in placed in a negative light “largely due to my poor choice of words” on the carrier, he was sorry for what had transpired and that “You are justified in being angry with me about that”.

SecDef Esper has tapped on Undersecretary of the Army James E. McPherson, a former Rear Admiral, to concurrently serve as the Acting SecNav in succession. USecA McPherson has 27 years of combined Army and Navy service in Military Police and Judge Advocate functions, including time on-board the USS Theodore Roosevelt during the Cold War.

Referring to the Acting SecNav’s resignation, President Trump said in a White House press conference: “I had no role in it. I don’t know him. I heard he was a very good man” and that “the whole thing was very unfortunate”.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt saga has brought about much controversy and discussion within the Navy, on Capitol Hill as well as in the public sphere. It should be noted that this saga is the latest in a series of high-profile events wherein the Department of the Navy has yet again failed to exercise prudence and rectify leadership issues that result in serious health and safety lapses. Such high-profile incidents included President Trump’s and SecNav Richard V. Spencer’s unlawful influence on the outcome of martial proceedings against Naval Special Warfare Operator Eddie Gallagher, leading to SecDef Esper firing then-SecNav Spencer in November 2019.

It raises some important questions for the Navy and Federal Government, in particular the degree of autonomy vested in Naval Captains – or other Commanding Officer in the military for that matter – to act under extraordinary circumstances such as the one described above, the extent to which the civilian leadership has authority to affect military operations, and how the U.S. Navy leadership should be acting to manage emergency situations such as the COVID-19 outbreak in relation to force protection and operational capabilities.

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