The Navy's top leaders aren't thrilled that a four-page letter from a ship's captain pleading for help with a novel coronavirus outbreak was leaked to the media this week, but they said they need commanding officers speaking out about challenges during the unprecedented pandemic.
Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, was within his rights to raise concerns with his chain of command about a troubling situation on his ship, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said Wednesday.
In his letter, obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, which posted it on its website this week, Crozier made an urgent plea to evacuate his crew after cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, rapidly spread onboard his carrier.
"I don't know who leaked the letter to the media -- that would be something that would violate the principles of good order if he were responsible for that, but I don't know that," Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told reporters. "The fact that he wrote the letter of his to his chain of command to express his concerns would absolutely not result in any type of retaliation."
Crozier, in his letter, said the Navy was risking the trust it has built with sailors if more wasn't done to look out for the crew's health on the Roosevelt. The aircraft carrier was operating in the Asia-Pacific region when sailors began testing positive for COVID-19 after the ship made a port call in Vietnam in early March.
Modly hit back against the idea that the Navy isn't looking out for its personnel, calling it "not the truth."
"It's disappointing to have him say that," Modly said. "We've been working very, very hard with the ship, with the command structure, to ensure that that's exactly what we're doing. It's our priority. We need the sailors to be safe, we need them to be healthy, and we need that ship to be operational.
"We're doing everything we can," he added.
Most of those crew members showed symptoms, Modly said, but seven did not. Testing will continue, he added.
The Navy's plan to leave about 1,100 crew members on the ship falls short of Crozier's request to evacuate all but 10% while it was sanitized. Modly and Gilday defended the decision to leave more crew members aboard.
"This ship has weapons on it, it has munitions on it, it has expensive aircraft, it has a nuclear power plant," Modly said. "It requires a certain number of people on that ship to maintain the safety and security of the ship."
Gilday said Crozier's letter pointed to a breakdown in communications between the captain and his chain of command. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith said the captain should have first communicated with families through the command's ombudsman so panicked family members didn't read about the situation on the carrier in media reports.
Ultimately though, Gilday added, Crozier is responsible for the safety of his crew.
"That's an extraordinary responsibility and ... he takes it very seriously," Gilday said. "So if he has a difference of approach and he thinks he has a better way to do it, and if he doesn't feel that we're acting at the speed of urgency, then absolutely we need to know about that and we need to adjust."