On Monday, Capt. Brett Crozier, the commander of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, sent a letter to the Navy pleading for permission to unload his crew, including scores of sailors sickened with Covid-19, in Guam, where it was docked. The Pentagon had been dragging its feet, and the situation on the ship was growing dire.
“We are not at war,” he wrote. “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.”
After the letter was leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle, the Navy relented. But on Thursday, it relieved Captain Crozier of his command.
Captain Crozier joins a growing list of heroic men and women who have risked their careers over the last few weeks to speak out about life-threatening failures to treat the victims of this terrible pandemic. Many of them are doctors and nurses, and many of them, like Captain Crozier, have been punished. All of them deserve our deepest gratitude.
In removing Captain Crozier, the Navy said that his letter was a gross error that could incite panic among his crew. But it’s hard to know what else he could have done — the situation on the Theodore Roosevelt was dire.
Ships at sea, whether Navy carriers or cruise ships, are hotbeds for this disease. Social distancing is nearly impossible: The sailors are practically on top of one another all day, in crowded messes, in cramped sleeping quarters and on group watches.
It is thought that a sailor caught the virus while on shore leave in Vietnam. Once on board, the virus took its now predictable course: First a sailor or two, then dozens, and all of a sudden more than 100 were sick.
Captain Crozier received orders to take the ship to Guam, but he was not given permission to offload most of the sailors. The virus was threatening to overwhelm the small medical crew aboard. There was not much time before sailors might start dying.
The captain felt he had to act immediately if he was to save his sailors. He chose to write a strong letter, which he distributed to a number of people within the Navy, demanding immediate removal from the ship of as many sailors as possible. Perhaps this was not the best approach for his career, but it got results.
The letter, once leaked to The Chronicle, quickly reappeared in papers nationwide. The immediate public pressure forced the Navy to relent, and it started arranging to get as many of the crew members as possible off the ship and into hotels in Guam.
Captain Crozier, however, paid a big price. The acting secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, summarily fired the captain, not for leaking the letter (for which he said he had no proof), but for showing “extremely poor judgment.” Many disagree, believing that Captain Crozier showed excellent judgment. He left the ship Thursday night to a rousing hero’s sendoff.
I suppose it is too much to hope that the Navy, if only for its own benefit, will see its way to reverse this unfortunate decision. But it is probably too late to save Captain Crozier’s career.
As a descendant of the namesake of Captain Crozier’s former command, I often wonder, in situations like this, what Theodore Roosevelt would have done. In this case, though, I know exactly what he would have done. In 1898, he found himself in almost the exact same position.
Before his rise to national politics, Roosevelt commanded the Rough Riders, a volunteer cavalry regiment, in the invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War. The Battle of San Juan Hill had been fought and won, and the war was basically over. However, the soldiers, still deployed in Cuba, faced a far worse enemy: yellow fever and malaria.
As was usual in the days before modern medicine, far more soldiers died of disease than of enemy action. The battlefield commanders, including Roosevelt, wanted to bring the soldiers home. But the leadership in Washington — in particular Russell Alger, the secretary of war — refused, fearing a political backlash. A standoff ensued.
The career Army officers, who did not want to risk their jobs by being too outspoken, were stymied. Roosevelt, as a short-term volunteer, had less to lose. So, with the tacit approval of his fellow commanders, he wrote a fiery open letter and released it to the press.
The letter, known as the “round robin,” was printed in virtually every newspaper in the country, creating an uproar demanding that the soldiers be brought home immediately. Alger relented, and the troops were sent to quarantine on the end of Long Island, at Montauk Point. Though hundreds of men died of disease in Cuba, Roosevelt’s actions probably saved countless more.
He did, however, pay a price. Alger was furious with him. When Roosevelt’s nomination came up for a Medal of Honor, the secretary shot it down (Roosevelt eventually received the medal, posthumously, in 2001). Of course, Roosevelt came out the winner. Who today remembers Russell Alger?
In this era when so many seem to place expediency over honor, it is heartening that so many others are showing great courage, some even risking their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, in his time, chose the honorable course. Captain Crozier has done the same.
Tweed Roosevelt, a great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, is a university professor and the chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Institute at Long Island University.
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