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Navy removes captain who raised alarm about coronavirus on aircraft carrier

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Washington — The captain of an aircraft carrier hit by the coronavirus was relieved of his command by the Navy on Thursday for going outside the chain of command and circulating a memo pleading for help from Washington, one which quickly became public.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said he relieved Captain Brett Crozier of command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt after losing confidence in his ability to lead under the stress of dealing with the viral outbreak.

"Command is a sacred trust that must be continually earned," Modly said at a news conference at the Pentagon. "As I learned more about the events of the past week onboard the Teddy Roosevelt ... I could reach no other conclusion than Captain Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally, when acting professionally was what was needed most at the time."

Crozier's memo painted a portrait of a dire situation onboard the Roosevelt, where dozens of sailors have tested positive for the coronavirus. Crozier argued that "[d]ecisive action" was needed to stop the spread of the virus, and called for the immediate removal of sailors from the ship.

Captain Brett Crozier. U.S. Navy

"We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die," he wrote. "If we do not act now, we are failing to take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors."

Modly said Thursday that Crozier failed to follow the chain of command and bring his concerns to his direct superior, the strike group commander who was "right down the passageway." Instead, Modly said the captain sent the memo over email and copied between 20 to 30 other people.

The letter was unclassified, but Modly said it should not have been so widely circulated, since it contained sensitive information about the readiness of one of the Navy's most valuable assets. The secretary said it "raised alarm bells unnecessarily" and represented "extremely poor judgment" in a crisis.

"The captain's actions made his sailors, their families and many others in the public believe that his letter was the only reason help from our larger Navy family was forthcoming, which was hardly the case," Modly said.

The secretary didn't directly accuse Crozier of leaking the letter to the press, but noted it first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Crozier's hometown newspaper.

The Navy said Wednesday that most of the roughly 4,000 crew members onboard the Theodore Roosevelt would be taken off the ship and rotated through quarantine and isolation based on results of coronavirus testing. Modly said Thursday that 3,000 beds had been secured for the crew on shore, a process that had been set in motion before the memo.

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David Martin contributed to this report.

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