Leadership, health and national security all collided these past two weeks, as COVID-19 rapidly spread aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). In late March, Capt. Brett Crozier sounded the alarm about the virus rapidly spreading among the nearly 5,000 service members aboard his ship. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly relieved Crozier of command April 2. Modly then flew to the ship in Guam and grossly disparaged the officer Sunday in a highly unusual address to Crozier’s former crew, abruptly resigning Tuesday amid the subsequent uproar.


Former Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, addresses the crew in 2019. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh via AP

All the while, the virus has been proliferating rapidly, now infecting hundreds of crew members, including Crozier himself. As a Maine-trained family physician actively fighting COVID-19 here in Portland, as a fellow graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and as a veteran who served in both peace and war aboard two sister-ships of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, I believe that Crozier demonstrated self-sacrificing leadership of the highest order when he sounded the alarm about COVID-19 aboard his ship.

Because lives are on the line in the military – just like in medicine – one learns quickly to follow the evidence and act rationally. Crozier rightly recognized last month that things were moving very fast soon after the first COVID-19 case aboard the ship. His four-page letter to other senior Navy officers, subsequently leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, was a dramatic but reasoned plea.

He explained the urgency of the situation and cited the most current peer-reviewed medical research about the deadliness of COVID-19 aboard a large ship. He then urged a rapid offloading of most of the crew to quarters on shore, consistent with pandemic guidance from both the Navy and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (He recommended retaining a skeleton crew aboard Theodore Roosevelt to safely operate the nuclear reactors and be available for firefighting or other damage control.)

A deployed Navy aircraft carrier is a national asset, with a heavy burden of responsibility. Everyone aboard knows that if needed, they must lay down their lives to advance the interests and values of our nation. “In combat we are willing to take certain risks that are not acceptable in peacetime,” Crozier emphasized in his letter, “However, we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.” Crozier demonstrated a sober consideration of the risks and benefits of available courses of action.

Some critics say that Crozier failed to respect the chain-of-command and security procedures when he emailed the letter. The usual channels may not have been working, though, and he was justifiably very concerned for the lives of his crew and the readiness of his ship. The Navy would not have selected him to command an aircraft carrier if he had anything but a sterling record of getting results under pressure, and operating within the usual chain of command.

Why would a top-notch officer adopt unconventional means for an urgent message? The answer may emerge from a formal investigation. Presently, the public does not have access to the classified messages regarding COVID-19 that must have passed between Theodore Roosevelt, the embarked admiral’s staff, Pacific Fleet Headquarters and Washington, D.C. We do know, though, that front-line warfighters sometimes must act unconventionally in order to get things done. The ship’s namesake himself was one example from the Spanish-American War in 1898. Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson recently described how then-Lt. Col. Roosevelt authored a similar letter during a yellow fever and malaria outbreak among deployed U.S. troops in the face of sluggish “usual channels.”

At the Naval Academy, there’s a saying: “Ship, shipmate, self.” In sounding his urgent alarm, Capt. Crozier knew he was likely sacrificing a career he’d spent more than 32 years building. And still he proceeded. He exemplified selfless leadership in recognizing that the lives of his sailors were more precious than his own career.

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