On January 17, a mighty US Navy carrier strike force departed the Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego for duty in the “Indo Pacific”, a chance to remind China of the vast military power of the United States and to visit a new friend not so long ago a bitter enemy. Heading the strike force was a 50-year-old Navy Captain, a 1988 graduate of Santa Rosa High School, with a brilliant career ahead of him. That career is now in ruins, and what happened to him could become a defining issue in the 2020 presidential election.
At the head of the strike force was the USS Theodore Roosevelt, fourth of the ten nuclear powered Nimitz class aircraft carriers with its crew of 5,000. Accompanying the Theodore Roosevelt was the USS Bunker Hill, a guided missile cruiser, and six destroyers.
Santa Rosa native Brett Crozier, a 1992 Naval Academy graduate who had taken command of the carrier in November, was captain of the Theodore Roosevelt. Crozier, who has a masters degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College, was in charge of one of America’s great naval vessels. Certainly admiral stripes would follow this duty.
But it was all not to be, because of a tragic mistake made by the United States Navy. To tweak China’s nose and show America’s power in the Indo Pacific Theater, the Theodore Roosevelt and Bunker Hill made a five day good will stop in the Vietnamese port of Da Nang beginning on March 4. “Sailors from both ships participated in cultural exchanges and community service projects, including making crafts, playing sports, a language exchange, gardening, and painting,” according to a press release from the US Indo Pacific Command.
And that was where tragedy struck, because members of the Theodore Roosevelt crew became infected with coronavirus while in Da Nang. Just two weeks after the ship departed, crew members began coming down with the virus.
It is ironic that this all happened in Da Nang, for it is a city with bittersweet memories for many Americans. Some 55 years earlier, almost to the day, on March 8 1965, the first US ground troops set foot in Vietnam, 3,500 Marines who landed at a place called China Beach at Da Nang.
Some 103 years before that, in 1862, French troops also landed at Da Nang, and began their colonization of Vietnam, what later became French Indochina. The French defeat in North Vietnam in 1954 led eventually to the American quagmire in Vietnam, costing 58,000 American lives in a losing war. The Theodore Roosevelt was just the second Navy ship to call in Vietnam since the war ended, and marked a new and better relationship with Vietnam.
But in hindsight, the Marines never should have landed there in 1965, and so too the Theodore Roosevelt never should have stopped in Vietnam, China’s neighbor and clearly a danger spot for the coronavirus. At least one sailor contacted the disease and spread it throughout the ship.
As it spread, Captain Crozier begged the Navy to stop and unload the ship, but the bumbling bureaucracy took no action. In his frustration Crozier wrote a blistering four page letter; and sent it to friends in the Bay Area; shortly after that it was leaked and appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
For acting outside the chain of command with his complaint, Crozier was removed as captain of his ship, and he himself has now tested positive of the virus. The question was not whether he acted improperly, he did, but rather whether the circumstances were so dire he had no choice.
The dismissal is also unusual because just before Admiral Michael Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations, said of Crozier, “We’re not looking to shoot the messenger here,” and the Navy never conducted a formal inquiry before Crozier was relieved. Crozier was fired by a political appointee, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, who was passed over for the permanent job last month, not by Navy brass as would be the normal procedure.
To make matters worse, in a “who’s on first” routine, Modly then gave a blistering speech to the Roosevelt crew in which he called Crozier “naïve” and “stupid,” and admitted in a newspaper interview that he made the move so President Trump would not himself fire Crozier. Defense Secretary Mark Esper then demanded that Modly apologize for calling Crozier names, which he did, and Trump announced he might “look into” the matter. On Tuesday, Modly resigned as acting Secretary of the Navy. These are the people on whom we depend for the safely for the nation.
But there is far more to the story. At his daily virus briefing on Saturday, Trump expressed outrage the ship had gone to Vietnam, “Now I guess the captain stopped in Vietnam and people got off in Vietnam. Perhaps you don’t do that in the middle of a pandemic. History says you don’t necessarily stop and let your sailors get off, number one.”
Well, just who sent the ship to Vietnam, the Trump Administration did. Its State Department and its Navy decided on the good will tour and what the sailors would do, not Captain Crozier. He was solely carrying out orders to be in Vietnam. As seems so often the case with the Trump presidency, someone lower level is taking the fall for screw ups by the higher ups.
The Vietnam stop occurred while the cruise ship Diamond Princess was anchored in Japan, its passengers and crew ravaged with coronavirus. Where were Defense Secretary Esper and Acting Navy Secretary Modly when that decision was made; should not they have asked whether making a port call off the coast of China in March made any sense?
Military historian and Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote that, “The only official in the entire government who has been publicly disciplined to date for mishandling of the virus is a Navy officer who acted to save his crew from an outbreak. This makes no sense save in the upside-down moral universe inhabited by the Trump administration.”
Boot noted that Modly has his job only because the prior Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, was fired by Trump. Spencer’s offense; he did not want to restore the rank of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher who was accused of war crimes and convicted on one count. Trump pardoned Gallagher after his conviction and interfered in the disposal of his case.
Spencer later wrote in the Post, “The president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”
And Boot put it this way, “The damage that was done to the military by Trump’s decision to pardon suspected war criminals will be compounded by Thursday’s decision to fire the skipper of the Theodore Roosevelt. The message that the administration is sending to the armed forces is that committing war crimes is acceptable but telling the truth and protecting the personnel under your command is not.”
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called Crozier’s firing “close to criminal,” and numerous Democrats have objected to Crozier’s dismissal. As sailors return to California from the stricken ship, will how their captain was treated become an issue in 2020, or will it just be dismissed as another sign of Trump being Trump.