By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In an extraordinary reversal, the U.S. Navy has recommended reinstating the fired captain of the coronavirus-hit aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, whose crew hailed him as a hero willing to risk his job to safeguard his sailors, officials said on Friday.
The Navy’s leadership made the recommendation to reinstate Captain Brett Crozier to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday, just three weeks after Crozier was relieved of command after the leak of a letter he wrote calling on the Navy for stronger measures, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon issued a statement acknowledging Esper received the results of the Navy’s preliminary inquiry into the Roosevelt incident. But it added that Esper wanted to review a written copy of the completed inquiry.
Suggesting no decision was imminent, the statement said Esper then “intends to thoroughly review the report and will meet again with Navy leadership to discuss next steps.” The Navy said in a statement “no final decisions have been made.”
Earlier on Friday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Esper was going into the meeting with “an open mind” and was leaning toward supporting the Navy’s conclusions.
“He is going into this with an open mind and he is generally inclined to support Navy leadership in their decisions,” Hoffman told a news briefing.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat, called for Crozier’s immediate reinstatement.
“During this time of crisis, Captain Crozier is exactly what our Sailors need: a leader who inspires confidence,” he said.
Sources say Crozier is one of the 856 sailors from the Roosevelt’s 4,800-member crew who have tested positive for the coronavirus, effectively taking one of the Navy’s most powerful ships out of operation.
Crozier was fired by the Navy’s top civilian, then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, against the recommendations of uniformed leaders, who suggested he wait for an investigation into the letter’s leak.
Modly’s decision backfired badly, as members of the crew hailed their captain as a hero in an emotional sendoff captured on video that went viral on social media.
Embarrassed, Modly then compounded his problems by flying out to the carrier to ridicule Crozier over the leak and question his character in a speech to the Roosevelt’s crew, which also leaked to the media. Modly then resigned.
The disclosure of the Navy’s recommendation, which was first reported by the New York Times, came just hours after the Pentagon announced that at least 18 sailors aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer – the Kidd – had tested positive for the new coronavirus.
It was another blow to the military as it faces fallout over its handling of the Roosevelt, raising additional questions about whether the safeguards in place to protect U.S. troops are sufficient.
The cases have highlighted the U.S. military’s struggle to meet increasingly competing priorities: maintaining readiness for conflict and safeguarding servicemembers as the virus spreads globally.
In the latest case, the outbreak aboard the Kidd took place while the vessel was on a counter-narcotics mission in the Caribbean. A sailor who had become sick was medically evacuated off the ship and later tested positive for the virus.
That prompted further testing of the crew that led to the discovery of additional positive cases.
A specialized medical team has been sent to the ship to carry out contact tracing and more onsite testing, the Navy said.
But only so much can be done while the ship is at sea, so the Navy is halting the mission and bringing it back to port.
The crisis being triggered by the coronavirus is the biggest facing Navy leadership since two crashes in the Asia Pacific region in 2017 that killed 17 sailors.
Those incidents raised questions about Navy training and the pace of operations, prompting a congressional hearing and the removal of a number of officers.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Sandra Maler, Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis)