With the Navy reeling from a week of damning headlines and hundreds of new coronavirus cases in the ranks, the service's top leaders issued separate force-wide messages pledging to keep sailors and their families safe.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and the new acting Navy secretary, James McPherson, told the fleet they are committed to helping sailors and Marines weather the novel coronavirus pandemic. The messages come after a commanding officer who warned of a growing number of COVID-19 cases on his ship was removed from his post, a situation that ultimately led to the previous acting Navy secretary to step down this week.
Gilday addressed some of the controversy directly.
"The events of the past week have been difficult for our Navy and our nation," he said. "We will learn from them. But make no mistake, we are moving forward. The Navy has our orders, and we are executing them."
The health and safety of Navy personnel is his top priority, Gilday said Wednesday. The day after his memo, the Navy reported it had 727 COVID-19 cases among its uniformed personnel.
Five of those people have been hospitalized, including one member of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt who was admitted to an intensive care unit in Guam on Thursday.
That ship's crew, Gilday said, is "staring down an invisible enemy."
Then-Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly relieved their skipper of command last week after Capt. Brett Crozier sent a letter pleading with the Navy to move the crew onto land over fears of spreading COVID-19 cases.
McPherson, a prior-enlisted soldier turned naval officer who less than two weeks ago was sworn in as the Army undersecretary, was thrust into Modly's old job this week. In his own letter to sailors and Marines on Thursday, McPherson said he is committed to protecting them.
"For as long as I have the privilege of serving as your Acting Secretary, I will do everything in my power to support your efforts and safety, and the safety and well-being of your families," he said.
The Navy Department has been without a Senate-confirmed secretary for nearly six months, when the last one resigned amid controversy over the handling of the case against former SEAL Eddie Gallagher.
President Donald Trump nominated retired Rear Adm. Kenneth Braithwaite, who's serving as U.S. ambassador to Norway, for the job.
With many events on Capitol Hill upended by the coronavirus crisis, though, it's unclear when Braithwaite's nomination hearing will occur.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said once the Senate is back in session, he will push to get the next Navy secretary confirmed quickly.
"It's disturbing to me that there's been so much turmoil at the top of the Department of the Navy over the last year," Inhofe said. "In this difficult time, the Navy needs leaders now more than ever who can provide continuity and steady, insightful leadership. ... Our Sailors, Marines and their families deserve to have stable, capable leadership at the helm during these challenging times."
Inhofe's Democratic counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, ranking member Jack Reed, agreed.
"The new leadership of the Navy must do better in leading and protecting sailors, Marines and their families in this unprecedented crisis," the Rhode Island Democrat said.