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Throng of sailors cheer Navy captain dismissed for raising virus alarms on aircraft carrier

UPDATED: Fri., April 3, 2020

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carrier, is docked along Kilo Wharf of Naval Base Guam in Sumay, Friday, April 3, 2020. The aircraft carrier, with a crew of nearly 5,000, is docked in Guam, and the Navy has said as many as 3,000 will be taken off the ship and quarantined by Friday. More than 100 sailors on the ship have tested positive for the virus, but none is hospitalized. (Rick Cruz / AP)
The USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carrier, is docked along Kilo Wharf of Naval Base Guam in Sumay, Friday, April 3, 2020. The aircraft carrier, with a crew of nearly 5,000, is docked in Guam, and the Navy has said as many as 3,000 will be taken off the ship and quarantined by Friday. More than 100 sailors on the ship have tested positive for the virus, but none is hospitalized. (Rick Cruz / AP)
By Alex Horton The Washington Post

There was no social distancing inside the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which briefly pulsated with a throng of admirers for their commander, relieved of duty by the Navy on Thursday for his outspoken plea for help with the coronavirus outbreak onboard.

Thundering chants of “Captain Crozier!” from hundreds of sailors filled the aircraft carrier’s hangar deck, according to multiple videos on social media, showing the last moments with their commanding officer, Navy Capt. Brett Crozier.

Crozier showed “poor judgment” by sending the letter by email to 20 or 30 people, acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly said, and he implied that Crozier leaked it to the San Francisco Chronicle, although he later backed away from that suggestion.

The view from his crew was considerably different, according to the videos that captured the moment he departed the ship, which is now docked in Guam.

“Now that’s how you send off one of the greatest captains you ever had … the GOAT,” a person says in one video, using the acronym for greatest of all time. “Man for the people.”

The bond between ship commanders and crew is distinct from every other military command, fused at the “elemental level” in an understanding of the unique power and responsibility a skipper wields, said Bryan McGrath, a former commander of a Navy destroyer.

So the emotional outpouring was not unprecedented, McGrath said Friday, and Crozier is not the first commander who has received such a send-off. But the feelings were obvious, he said.

“It speaks volumes,” McGrath said of the videos. “They’re grateful to him for looking out for them, which is one of the jobs of the commanding officer of a Navy ship. It’s clear they have great affection for him.”

McGrath, now a defense consultant, counts the Navy as one of his clients.

The Roosevelt’s climbing infection rate, which rose past 100 as of Thursday, became the military’s biggest outbreak and a flash point in the Pentagon’s uneven coronavirus response.

As infections mounted, Crozier wrote a letter to senior leaders, asking that most of his crew of 4,800 sailors be removed for testing, quarantining and disinfecting the ship.

U.S. aircraft carriers, floating cities powered by nuclear reactors, are symbols of the nation’s global projection. The Navy has 11 active carriers in its inventory.

The consequences of taking one offline — especially a ship assigned to patrol the Pacific as a check China’s military power — is enormous, but Crozier described it necessary to protect the health of his crew.

“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors,” Crozier wrote in his letter first obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The ship docked in Guam, but Crozier’s letter rattled senior leaders.

“I could reach no other conclusion than that Capt. Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the covid breakout on his ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally, when acting professionally was what was needed most at the time,” Modly said at a news conference Thursday.

It is not yet clear what steps Crozier took to raise concerns with senior leaders before sending the letter. Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, his immediate boss and commander of the carrier’s strike group, was embarked on the ship with Crozier and was not aware of the letter until he received it, Modly said.

McGrath said it was apparent both Crozier and Navy leaders believed they were doing the right thing by their respective actions.

Crozier “believed he needed to raise the alarm on the conditions on his ship, and no one was in a better position to assess those conditions than he was,” he said.

The Navy wants commanders to advocate for the health and safety of their sailors, “but they want people to understand there’s a way of going about that,” he said, and Crozier’s message straying outside the chain of command appeared to be a bridge too far.

That adherence to the chain of command, and confidence in the decisions of commanders, is what the Navy ultimately relies on to run.

“I think both sides have a piece of right here,” McGrath said. “Crozier made his stand. When he wrote that letter, he almost certainly knew it may end up like this.”

About 1,000 sailors must remain on the ship at all times to operate weapons, the nuclear reactors and other sensitive equipment. Some 2,700 will leave to be tested and quarantined within days, the Navy said.

In one of the videos, Crozier stands a few feet away from his crew, awash in applause as a vehicle waits to take him away. He waves and salutes, then turns to walk up the gangway alone.

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The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.

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