This was the third in a series of 3 articles written on the Crozier affair. The first piece was written in reaction to the significant lack of balance in national coverage of the USS Theodore Roosevelt COVID issue, which seemed to ignore national strategic implications of a COVID infection that started in China and then took out of action the only American aircraft carrier deployed in the China theater of operations. It was published in Wall Street Journal on April 6, 2020. The second piece was written about the great media reaction to the perception that Crozier’s actions were appropriate because they were driven by “love” for and by his crew, and was published in US Naval Institute Proceedings a week later. This third piece was written to explore the larger issues of weighing what was best for the crew of USS Theodore Roosevelt against the spread of infection to the older, less healthy, and largely low income population of American citizens residing in Guam.
Should Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reinstate Captain Crozier? This is a complex issue. Let’s consider it based on the facts as we know them now.
Let’s not debate how the infection got to the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Some say the vector was from their visit to Vietnam, but the timeline may support the possibility that one of the crewmembers returning to the ship from San Diego brought the infection with him. We may never know, and it really doesn’t affect the issues outlined below.
But once the infection was aboard, here is the situation Navy leaders faced:
While the leaders of other sovereign nations could have refused entry to the Roosevelt, the governor of Guam could not. Hence, Guam was the Navy’s only real choice for where to send the ship.
Guam is a very small territory, with a population of about 160K, about the size of Fort Collins, Colorado. There is one small naval “hospital” on the island (almost too small to be called a hospital), as well as one civilian hospital. If an outbreak occurred among the civilian population, it could be devastating, so the territorial leaders had to be convinced the outbreak would be contained.
Capt. Crozier’s written statements indicated he wanted his crew off the ship fast, but there was no place on base to house 4500 crewmembers. The Army has housed troops in isolation in field conditions (tents), but this was either not possible or not contemplated for the Roosevelt crew. Hence, Capt. Crozier insisted the best course of action was to put the crew in tourist district hotels.
But Guam’s hotels had already been closed because of the virus, and hotel employees had been laid off. So, the Navy had to work with hotel owners, convince them to open their hotels to potential infection, develop a plan to prevent interface between sailors and hotel workers, and wait for the hotels to rehire employees who would be willing to risk potential infection. Further, the Navy had to figure out a way to feed the crew 14000 meals a day with the restaurants in town also shut down because of COVID. The Navy had to work with restaurant owners and convince them to rehire their staffs and open back up to serve, again, potentially infected sailors.
The Navy could not mandate these things— they had no power over the local government or local businesses. People in the local community had to be willing to help. Folks had to come out of isolation. Businesses had to be restarted.
Capt. Crozier knew about these complexities. He raised it in his March 30th email: “While I understand that there are political concerns with requesting the use of hotels on Guam to truly isolate the remaining 4,500 Sailors 14+ days, the hotels are empty, and I believe it is the only way to quickly combat the problem.”
But the potential for civilian casualties among American citizens are not merely “political concerns,” and leaders on Guam were very concerned. On April 2nd, Senator Sabina Flores Perez wrote a letter to Guam’s Governor Lourdes Leon Guererro that said, in part, “I am disturbed by the reckless double-standard of potentially placing potentially exposed military personnel in local hotels…. If sailors are placed in our hotels, we will be exposing lower-wage employees to greater risk, many of whom are older and have limited or no health benefits for themselves and their families.” (emphasis added)
Again, Capt. Crozier was right to fight for his crew. But senior leaders, both in the Navy and in the government of Guam, had to weigh the risk to his young and healthy crew against the risk to the mostly lower income, older people of Guam, to make sure things were done deliberately and safely.
When Capt. Crozier didn’t think things were moving fast enough, he wrote (and someone leaked) his now infamous letter.
From the start, it appears that Capt. Crozier was anxious about the only available data at his disposal for the spread of COVID aboard ship— that from a cruise ship. Extrapolating from that, it’s reported that he thought there was a possibility that 50 of his sailors could die. But he should have understood the two models were not comparable. The cruise ship passengers’ average age was late 60s, many with significant health problems. His crew’s average age was about 21, all of them relatively healthy and in “deployable” status. It’s unspeakably tragic that a sailor from the Roosevelt died— but that was one death in about 950 infections. What was the shipboard death rate for a population aged 65–90? About 1%. It’s prudent to plan for the worst case scenario, and there was a lot that wasn’t known about the disease progression at the time, but if his medical staff led him to believe that the mortality rates for his crew would be anywhere near 50, they may have inadvertently set him up.
People have said that Capt. Crozier would not have written his letter without first consulting his leadership. Evidence suggests that he did have discussions with his leadership— he just didn’t like the answer he was getting.
If Capt. Crozier was putting the interests of his crew over the interests of other American citizens, even to the point of seeking national media attention, in such a way that would turn the tide to his favor– was that the right call? Is that the standard we are going to use to measure the performance of other Navy commanding officers going forward? To use all methods available to them, including the press, if they are frustrated with their chain of command’s responsiveness?
And it bears repeating— the rock concert-like, social-distancing-be-damned celebration by the Roosevelt crew as Crozier left the ship make it clear that Crozier did a very poor job teaching his crew how to avoid this infection. I wonder how many of the 950 infections in his crew were caused by that goodbye celebration. Your Aunt Emma and her friends have been very disciplined in their enforcement of the routines that will get us out of this crisis. A Navy ship’s crew should be more disciplined, not less, than Aunt Emma.
If you believe Capt. Crozier was right to get agitated with leaders in his chain of command who had the broader responsibility of balancing the interests of 160,000 mostly low-income American citizens with the interests of his young, healthy crew, then by all means reinstate.
[i] The timeline can be found here: https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2020/04/timeline-battle-uss-theodore-roosevelt/164408/ [ii] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e3.htm