USS Roosevelt coronavirus fracas ends in SECNAV resignation

Harry Lye 8 April 2020 (Last Updated April 8th, 2020 11:44)

The Acting Secretary of the US Navy (SECNAV), Thomas Modly, has resigned drawing to a close a week of leaks and speeches that have left the Navy with a new acting head, and a carrier without a captain.

USS Roosevelt coronavirus fracas ends in SECNAV resignation
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly speaks at a Pentagon press briefing. Image: US Navy.

Modly resigned on Tuesday after an audio recording surfaced of him describing the former captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt Captain Brett Crozier as either “too naïve or too stupid” to lead the ship.

Crozier was fired by the US Navy after a memo he sent detailing the effects of widespread Covid-19 coronavirus infection aboard the ship and was leaked to the press. In his memo, Crozier warned Navy leadership: “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 assets – our sailors.”

In a letter, the Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said: “This morning I accepted Secretary Modly’s resignation. He resigned on his own accord, putting the Navy and the Sailors above self so that the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the Navy as an institution, can move forward. His care for the sailors was genuine.

“Secretary Modly served the nation for many years, both in and out of uniform. I have the deepest respect for anyone who serves our country, and who places the greater good above all else. Secretary Modly did that today, and I wish him all the best.”

On Monday, Modly flew to Guam to address the crew of the USS Roosevelt in person. His remarks caused an expletive-heavy uproar among the crew, and shortly after delivering the speech, a transcript surfaced, followed by a recording of the speech.

Speaking about Crozier’s letter over the intercom, Modly said: “It was my opinion, If he didn’t think that information was going to get out, in this information age that we live in, then he was a) either too naïve or too stupid to lead a ship like this. The alternate is that he did it on purpose and that’s a serious violation of the uniform code of military justice which you are all familiar with.”

In audio recordings of the speech, the Roosevelt’s crew can be heard disagreeing with the comments of the SECNAV, and after the recording surfaced Modly initially did not back down from his remarks. Following his speech lawmakers from the House and Senate’s Armed Services Committees called for Modly’s resignation, which followed shortly.

Taking Modly’s place is Army Undersecretary Jim McPherson, a former admiral, who in the words of Esper has ‘a distinguished 26-year naval career, serving ashore, afloat, and overseas during his time in uniform’.

Esper added: “He [Jim McPherson] is a smart, capable, and professional leader who will restore confidence and stability in the Navy during these challenging times. Jim will serve as acting Secretary of the Navy until a permanent Navy Secretary is confirmed.”

The fracas over the USS Theodore Roosevelt drew attention from all camps of the military and government, with the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, Tweed Roosevelt stepping into the debate with a New York Times op-ed, decrying the dismissal of Captain Crozier, who himself has tested positive for Covid-19.

Tweed Roosevelt, who is chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Institute at Long Island University, wrote: “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.”

After the news of Modly’s resignation was confirmed, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jim Inhofe said: “Secretary Esper has my support for the personnel decisions he determines necessary to provide stability and strong leadership throughout the Department of Defense, especially as we deal with this pandemic.

“However, it’s disturbing to me that there’s been so much turmoil at the top of the Department of the navy over the last year. In this difficult time, the navy needs leaders now more than ever who can provide continuity and steady, insightful leadership.”

The decision adds to a tumultuous year for the leadership of the US Navy, which is on its third leader since November 2019, when then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer resigned over disagreements in the handling of the case of US Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher who was tried for war crimes.

As of March, across the Department of Defence (DoD) around a third of civilian positions are filled, or have temporary appointments, according to Politico.

An investigation is currently underway into the handling of the situation onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt led by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Michael M. Gilday. Any further action against Captain Crozier and the handling of the situation onboard USS Roosevelt is on hold until the investigation is complete.

Esper outlined three priorities for the DoD in confronting the situation regarding the Covid-19 outbreak, saying: “First, protect our people, which means putting the health, safety and welfare of the USS. Theodore Roosevelt’s crew first; Second, maintain the warfighting readiness of the US military, which means getting the Roosevelt back to sea, and on patrol, as soon as safely possible; and Third, fully supporting the whole of government/whole of nation response to the coronavirus to protect the American people.”

Esper’s letter accepting the resignation of Modly ended saying: “We must now put the needs of the Navy, including the crew of the Teddy Roosevelt, first, and we must all move forward together.”