The Navy has repeatedly blamed Capt. Brett Crozier for the unprecedented novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt last year, but newly-released emails show several of Crozier’s colleagues instantly recognized that he had put the lives of his crew above his own career.
“You are a great leader and Naval Officer,” Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, commander of Navy Region Northwest, told Crozier in April. The Navy’s top brass would say the opposite two months later when Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday accused Crozier of acting too slowly to contain the disease and putting his ship at risk by lifting a quarantine.
Barnett’s email was among more than 1,200 pages of communications the Navy provided to Task & Purpose in response to its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for all emails sent to and from Crozier’s email address between March 25, 2020 and April 2, 2020.
Crozier wrote an urgent letter to other Navy commanders on March 30 warning that his sailors would die unless most of the ship’s crew was moved into individual quarantine ashore. He was fired on April 2, shortly after the San Francisco Chronicle published a leaked copy of his letter.
According to officials, Crozier was initially fired because he had created “a little bit of a panic on the ship” by sending his letter, which argued that sailors did not need to die, since “we are not war.”
Gilday initially recommended that Crozier be reinstated as the Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer, but on June 19 he told reporters that a deeper investigation into the outbreak aboard the ship found that Crozier and others on the ship had made serious errors, such as not moving sailors ashore quickly enough.
“Had I known then what I know now, I would have relieved him,” Gilday said at a Pentagon news conference.
Yet before Crozier was relieved of command, the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson sent him an email with words of encouragement.
“I read your letter yesterday in the SF Chronicle,” Capt. Matthew Paradise wrote on April 1. “I thought it was awesome and a textbook example of speaking truth to power and taking care of your troops.”
It started with a few sailors, but soon the COVID-19 outbreak was totally out of control
The COVID-19 outbreak aboard the Theodore Roosevelt last spring ultimately sickened more than 1,200 crew members, one of whom died of the disease: Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr.
Previous emails released by the Navy as a result of Task & Purpose’s lawsuit show how the disease was sweeping through the ship much faster than the Navy’s bureaucracy could respond.
In a March 29 email, Crozier and other officers worked on a paper to explain to their superiors that testing crew members would not contain the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the ship.
“If we can get them to understand that, then they [will see the] whole strategy we are currently executing doesn’t work,” Crozier wrote.
The situation grew so dire that members of the ship’s medical department warned Crozier that 50 crew members could die from the disease, a subsequent Navy investigation found.
Yet Crozier’s superiors appeared to not comprehend the fact that it was impossible to abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols to contain the disease aboard a warship, which has confined spaces and open sleeping areas.
Indeed, the ship’s executive officer later acknowledged that attempts to quarantine sailors in the aft section of the aircraft carrier had been a total failure.
The quarantined sailors were crowded together with little food and they had little to do but sit next to other sick crew members, as Capt. Daniel Keeler later told investigators.
“By Sunday morning, we had some true human suffering in aft berthing,” Keeler said. “It was obvious” to the senior medical officer, command master chief, “and I that the entire ship was in close contact and we all needed to go into proper quarantine.”
As he struggled to move his sailors into individual rooms on Guam, Crozier sent an email to several commanders on March 30 – along with a four-page letter that outlined how the Navy’s attempts to contain COVID-19 aboard the Theodore Roosevelt were not working and he no longer had confidence in the regular staffing process.
“As you know, the accountability of a Commanding Officer is absolute, and I believe if there is ever a time to ask for help it is now regardless of the impact on my career,” Crozier wrote.
‘I know that you are doing what is right to take care of your Sailors and your ship’
Despite the Navy later blaming Crozier for sending an urgent plea for help, soon after his letter was leaked to the media, fellow commanding officers and others sent him messages of support.
“I know you are feeling an immense amount of heat and outside pressure from everything that is going on right now, but wanted to let you know that the people who matter still support you,” wrote Capt. Sean Bailey, who was then the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush.
“I admire your commitment to communicating candidly to leadership and I’m confident that the ‘leak’ to the SF Chronicle was someone else’s misdirected motivation,” Bailey continued in the April 1 email. “Regardless, I know that you are doing what is right to take care of your Sailors and your ship. Let me know if I can help.”
Cmdr. Patrick Eliason, who was then commanding officer of the destroyer USS The Sullivans, thanked Crozier for “having the guts” to risk his career by sending the letter.
Eliason also wrote that he felt Navy leaders were “trying to wish this problem away.”
“I can tell you there are a number of us at the O5 [Navy commander] level that feel like we are being second guessed in any action taken to prevent this from taking over as well as our response,” Eliason wrote in a March 31 email. “Hopefully your letter starts to move the needle in how we are dealing with this onboard ship and the Navy writ large.”
While it will never be known which sailor was patient zero, the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the Theodore Roosevelt began after the aircraft carrier had visited Vietnam.
Timothy Liston, the U.S. deputy consul general in Vietnam, later sent Crozier an email describing his letter to Navy leaders as “a great example of leadership and trying to do the right thing to take care of your people.”
Even Hollywood offered to help, according Capt. Brian Ferguson, who was then the Navy Reserve Carrier Strike Group 15 commanding officer.
Ferguson, who also served as the Navy’s lead technical advisor and aerial coordinator for “TOPGUN: Maverick,” wrote that several of the movie’s cast members had privately approached him about the possibility of sending care packages to Theodore Roosevelt’s crew members.
Ferguson suggested that perhaps the actors could record short messages of thanks that the studio could put together in a video for the crew. If Crozier replied to Ferguson, his email was not included in the communications provided by the Navy.
But other Navy officers knew that Crozier was going to need more tangible assistance. On April 2, the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, suggested that Crozier speak with a lawyer.
“The below [Judge Advocate General] is standing by for the call,” wrote Capt. Douglas Peterson. “Recommended to me was sooner rather than later.”
That day, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announced he was firing Crozier, whom he claimed had acted irresponsibly for sending his letter to so many people.
Modly erroneously claimed that Crozier had “copied to 20 or 30 other people” on his email with the letter which had “raised alarm bells unnecessarily.”
“I think you raise a particular level of alarm when you say that 50 people on the crew are going to die, OK?” Modly said during a Pentagon news conference. “No one knows that to be true. It does not comport with the data we have right now on the ship.”
It soon became apparent that Crozier’s actual sin was that his urgent plea for assistance had been obtained by the media, as Modly acknowledged in an address to the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew on April 5.
“If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t going to get out into the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either A, too naïve, or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this,” Modly said during the shipboard tantrum that ultimately cost him his job.
But many members of the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew felt that Crozier had fallen on his sword for them, as evidenced by emails he received leading up to his removal and afterward.
One sailor emailed Crozier on April 2 to say he had left a thank you note in the commanding officer’s suggestion box.
“I know the last thing you are probably thinking about is suggestions but I would really love for you to have it before anything happens,” wrote the sailor, whose name was redacted.
A lieutenant junior grade emailed Crozier on April 3 to thank him for his leadership, recalling the first time he served as officer of the deck under Crozier’s command.
The lieutenant remembered asking Crozier for permission to post more lookouts because visibility was poor. Crozier not only replied immediately, but he asked if the lookouts who were already out there had foul-weather gear.
“In that moment I knew you were the definition of a Leader,” the lieutenant wrote. “You were our new Commanding Officer, you had billions of dollars of equipment and thousands of lives entrusted to you, and you Sir were concerned with the most Junior Sailor in your charge.”
Another sailor emailed Crozier on April 2 to say he was thinking about getting out of the Navy before being assigned to the Theodore Roosevelt, but Crozier had restored his faith in what it means to be a commanding officer.
The sailor signed off with “#ImwithCAPTCrozier,” a hashtag used by many crew members in social media posts after the firing.
Crozier also received notes of thanks from sailors elsewhere in the Navy, including a captain apparently assigned to the Navy’s Surface Force in the Pacific Fleet who gave him perhaps the highest compliment a naval aviator could muster.
“Saw your letter yesterday in the news,” the captain wrote Crozier on April 1. “I just wanted you to know that it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen…even bigger than a negative 4G inverted dive while conducting international relations.”
Featured image: Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew during an all-hands call on the ship’s flight deck. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh.)