As the Navy Moved to Fire Capt. Crozier, Other Leaders Rallied Around Him

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Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the USS Roosevelt addresses the crew.
Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew Jan. 17, 2020. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Alexander Williams)

Just hours after the San Francisco Chronicle published Capt. Brett Crozier's now-famous letter about the growing crisis aboard his aircraft carrier, emails started rolling into his inbox.

Crozier, the former commanding officer of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, was hailed as a hero after pleading with his leaders to send his carrier to port in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. It was just weeks after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and a lot was still unknown.

Crozier was applauded for speaking truth to power, and even repaired one officer's trust in military leadership.

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"You restored my faith in what it means to be a [commanding officer]," an auxiliaries division officer wrote to Crozier on April 2. "I came from a pretty bad command climate on my previous ship and after 12 years in the military was set on getting out after this tour. You restored that."

Even parents of sailors assigned to the Roosevelt asked the ship's ombudsman how they could assist.

"We read Captain Crozier's letter requesting assistance from the Navy. We support everything that he has expressed in his letter. Is there anything we, as parents, can do to help with this? Set up funds, write [our] congressman, send supplies? Please let us know."

The new revelations were uncovered in more than 1,100 pages worth of Crozier's incoming and outgoing emails. The messages show that Crozier had the support and concern of peers, superiors and subordinates and civilians alike -- even as top Navy leaders moved to relieve him of command for what they said was the mishandling of the health problems on the ship.

The emails were obtained by Task and Purpose through lawsuit after the Navy denied the outlet's Freedom of Information Act request. (Military.com submitted a similar request to the Navy last year for all Crozier's emails between the dates of March 1 and April 6, 2020, that mentioned the words "virus," "nfection," "coronavirus," "COVID-19" or "COVID." That request was also denied.)

Two attorneys represented Task and Purpose pro bono to fight the FOIA denial. When the Navy declassified the emails and released them, Task and Purpose published them in full this week.

"[They] are America's records, and Americans have a legal right to them under the Freedom of Information Act," Paul Szoldra, the outlet's editor-in-chief, said.

The commanding officer from another ship with a positive COVID-19 case told Crozier he was thankful for the captain's email, adding it hoped it would start "to move the needle in how we are dealing with this onboard ship and the Navy writ large." The Navy had a plan for how to deal with infectious disease on ships, but most of its commands weren't following pandemic training requirements before COVID hit, the Pentagon's watchdog agency later found.

"Thank you for having the guts to do what you did today sir," the CO wrote to Crozier after the letter was published. "... I can tell you there are a number of us at the O5 level that feel like we are being second guessed in any action taken to prevent this from taking over as well as our response."

Navy leaders were second-guessing Crozier on his handling of the Roosevelt's outbreak, too. Days after the San Francisco Chronicle made his plea public, he was removed from his job. Then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said at the time that Crozier's letter led to unnecessary panic on the ship. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday later called Crozier's email warning "unnecessary," and said the captain released sailors from quarantine on the ship too quickly, which might've put others at risk.

After a lengthy review of the circumstances, top Navy leaders opted against reinstating him. Modly later resigned from his position after criticism for his own handling of the crisis.

Crozier has been silent since his relief, but his letter -- along with his emails -- describe the difficulty the crew faced in establishing proper quarantine conditions on the Roosevelt as COVID-19 cases began spreading. A week before his letter was published, Crozier described in an email to a friend his concerns following a port call in Vietnam during which dozens of sailors had contact with two people at their hotel who later tested positive.

"As you can imagine, a [carrier] is a tough place to isolate anyone for 14 days but it worked," Crozier wrote on March 24. "Except that this morning we had 3 different Sailors onboard that actually tested positive for CV19 so we're now scrambling to deal with that. Isolation/quarantine is almost impossible at this point. But we'll work through it one way or another."

The situation quickly worsened. More than 1,200 members of the nearly 5,000-person crew eventually tested positive. One crew member died.

The crew turned out to applaud for Crozier when he left the ship after his relief, and his inbox shows he had support from far outside his command, too.

"I know you have a lot on your plate but I wanted to reach out and check on you," Rear Adm. Steve Barnett, Navy Region Northwest's commander wrote on April 1. "... [You] are a great leader and Naval Officer. Feel free to drop me a line if/as needed."

Another officer said he'd be honored to buy Crozier a beer.

"[You are a HERO for looking out for your Sailors and I'm sure they are grateful for it," a commander and foreign area officer wrote. "We need more leaders like you in our Navy. I truly hope you are not suffering any repercussions over this from senior leadership, but if you are, you can at least have a clear conscience knowing you did what was right and necessary."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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