Navy removing more sailors from stricken aircraft carrier

USS Theodore Roosevelt has been hit with nearly 100 COVID-19 infections and counting

Vice Adm. Michael Gilday appears for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be an admiral and Chief of Naval Operations on Capitol Hill on July 31, 2019.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Vice Adm. Michael Gilday appears for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be an admiral and Chief of Naval Operations on Capitol Hill on July 31, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 1, 2020 at 4:35pm

Navy leaders said Wednesday they are moving aggressively to remove more than half the sailors off the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, which has been hit with nearly 100 COVID-19 infections and counting. 

But Navy Secretary Thomas Modly and Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday made clear they do not agree with Capt. Brett Crozier, the carrier’s commanding officer, that 90 percent of the crew need to be sent ashore for quarantine in Guam, where the ship is making a port visit.

In an impassioned March 30 memo, Crozier had pleaded with Navy leaders to evacuate 90 percent of the ship’s crew as soon as possible. 

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“Sailors do not need to die,” Crozier wrote in the memo, which was first disclosed Tuesday by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Some members of Congress sided with Crozier on the need to get as many crew members off the carrier as soon as possible, leaving only a relatively small group of sailors to protect and maintain weapons, aircraft and the nuclear power plant. 

Joe Courtney, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, told CQ Roll Call in a statement that the ship’s commanding officer, or CO, should be heeded. 

“If the CO of the carrier believes this is the best path forward for the safety and health of the crew, then there should be no question it is the right thing to do,” Courtney said. 

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Courtney and 26 other mostly Democratic House members, including several on Armed Services, wrote Navy leaders Wednesday asking for a description of "the steps being taken to address the potential emergence of COVID-19 on deployed ships. "

Georgia Republican David Perdue, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, is closely monitoring the situation and is in close contact with top Navy officials, said Jenni Sweat, a spokeswoman for Perdue.

“The Senator’s top priority is protecting the health and safety of every service member, while maintaining operational readiness,” Sweat said in a written statement.

Virginia’s senators, Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, said on Twitter that they wrote Modly a letter Wednesday asking questions about the Navy’s readiness to operate ships with COVID-19-free crews at the same time it needs to disinfect them.

Won't ‘shoot the messenger’

In contrast to Crozier’s plea, Modly told reporters they do not believe that 90 percent of the crew should be removed. About 1,000 sailors need to remain on board — just over 20 percent of the total crew of 4,800-plus sailors — to keep critical functions operating, he said. 

Modly said many sailors have been taken off the carrier just in the past 48 hours. So far, just over 1,000 of the ship’s crew have been sent ashore on Guam.

The plan, he added, is to raise that number of evacuees to 2,700, roughly 56 percent of the ship, by the weekend. Navy officials said they are feverishly looking for spaces to house sailors on Guam, notably including available hotel rooms.

Included in the Theodore Roosevelt evacuees are 93 sailors who have tested positive for COVID-19, Modly said, and 593 sailors tested negative. 

About 1,273 sailors have been tested so far — a quarter of the crew, he said. Some of the results have not come back.

The infected sailors on the single ship represent a not inconsiderable percentage of the people in the U.S. military who have tested positive for the disease this year.

As of Wednesday morning, 771 active-duty personnel have tested positive, Defense officials said. When civilians, dependents and contractors are included, the total is 1,343.

Gilday, the top uniformed officer in the Navy, acknowledged there had been a “misunderstanding” with Crozier about how rapidly sailors should be evacuated.

But, Gilday and Modly said, Crozier would not be punished for having communicated his concerns through the chain of command, regardless of the fact that the memo ended up in the press.

“We’re not looking to shoot the messenger here,” Gilday said. “We want to get this right.”

Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.