Top U.S. defense officials are not ruling out restoring Navy Capt. Brett Crozier to his former command of the coronavirus-sidelined aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Crozier was abruptly removed from that post on April 3 after going outside of his chain of command and emailing an impassioned plea for a more decisive response to the outbreak.
Such a reinstatement of a sacked warship skipper would be without precedent in the Navy. There have been numerous calls by congressional Democrats to have Crozier, who remains in isolation in Guam after testing positive for coronavirus, put back in command of the Roosevelt.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked about a New York Times report that the Navy is looking into reinstating Crozier.
"I've got to keep an open mind with regard to everything," Esper said of such a reversal of the Navy's action on NBC's Today show. "We've got to take this one step at a time, let the investigation within the Navy conclude itself, if you will, at it — as they brief it up, and we'll take things as they can, and we'll make very reasoned opinions and judgments as this progresses."
Crozier was removed from his command by then-acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly before an investigation of the captain's actions had been completed, a highly unusual move in the military. Modly then resigned following a storm of criticism for a profanity-laced speech he delivered aboard the Roosevelt defending his firing of Crozier while calling the deposed skipper "naive" and "stupid."
Modly's decision to remove Crozier prior to the investigation's conclusion had been opposed by both Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, according to officials quoted by the New York Times, which added that Modly, "believing that [President] Trump wanted him fired, ignored them."
The probe into Crozier's actions was led by Adm. Robert Burke, the Navy's second-ranking officer. Members of the Roosevelt's crew told the Times Burke had earlier called the ship's chief medical officer, who had been pushing for a more decisive response to the viral outbreak, and labeled him a "failed leader."
"I am taking no options off the table as I review that investigation," said Gilday, the Navy's top uniformed official, in a conference call with reporters last week. "I think that's my responsibility — to approach it in a way that's with due diligence to make sure that it's completely fair and as unbiased as I can possibly make it."
Esper told NBC that the report of the investigation had been completed late last week and that he expected it would eventually be sent to him after first being reviewed by the Navy.
"Adm. Gilday has received, and is reviewing the preliminary Inquiry," Cmdr. Nate Christensen, Gilday's spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday. "It will take time for the report to be reviewed and endorsed by Adm. Gilday. No final decisions have been made."
The Roosevelt is currently docked in Guam and Capt. Carlos Sardiello, who was its skipper prior to Crozier, has been placed back in command on an interim basis.
About 4,000 of the ship's 4,865 sailors are undergoing quarantine on shore in Guam.
One of the crew died of COVID-19 on April 13. On Thursday, the Navy identified the ship's first fatality in the outbreak as Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr, 41, of Fort Smith, Ark. Five other sailors have been hospitalized, one in critical condition.
More than 650 of the crew have tested positive for the coronavirus. "What's disconcerting is a majority of those — 350 plus — are asymptomatic," Esper said on NBC. "So it has revealed a new dynamic of this virus — that it can be carried by normal, healthy people who have no idea whatsoever that they're carrying it."
Meanwhile, efforts to thoroughly sanitize the Roosevelt continue, an operation that a Navy publication says crew members have dubbed "bleach-a-palooza."
"The team's mission is to fully sanitize the ship," Cmdr. Chad Hollinger, the ship's weapons officer, is quoted as telling the Navy. "To complete the mission we are going to clean this ship from top-to-bottom and forward-to-aft to create a clean zone for everyone coming back to the ship, so we can get back to business."
Esper, for his part, insisted on NBC that the Roosevelt could resume its mission immediately if that were necessary.
"The key is getting her back to sea," Esper said. "This was a special case. We're going to get it behind us, and I'm sure the TR will be back to sea soon, performing its important wartime mission."