April 1, 2020 / 6:57 PM / 3 months ago

U.S. Navy does not rule out punishing captain who criticized coronavirus response

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy on Wednesday declined to rule out punishing the captain of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote a scathing letter to Navy leadership asking for stronger measures to control a coronavirus outbreak onboard.

FILE PHOTO: The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt is pictured as it enters the port in Da Nang, Vietnam, March 5, 2020. REUTERS/Kham/File Photo

In a four-page letter, the contents of which were confirmed by U.S. officials to Reuters on Tuesday, Captain Brett Crozier described a bleak situation aboard the nuclear-powered carrier as more sailors tested positive for the virus.

Sailors and their families have expressed anxiety and frustration.

The letter put the Pentagon on the defensive about whether it was doing enough to keep the warship’s 5,000 crew members safe, and alarmed the families of those aboard the vessel, whose home port is in San Diego.

“I don’t know who leaked the letter to the media. That would be something that would violate the principles of good order and discipline, if he were responsible for that. But I don’t know that,” acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said when asked multiple times whether the captain faced discipline.

“The fact that he wrote the letter up to his chain of command to express his concerns would absolutely not result in any type of retaliation,” Modly said.

In the letter, the captain called for “decisive action”: removing over 4,000 sailors from the ship and isolating them. He said that unless the Navy acted immediately, it would be failing to properly safeguard “our most trusted asset - our sailors.”

“It’s disappointing to hear him say that. However, at the same time, I know that that’s not the truth,” Modly said, adding that he disagreed with the captain’s assertion that all but 10 percent of the ship’s crew could be removed from the vessel.

The carrier was in the Pacific when the Navy reported its first coronavirus case a week ago. It has since docked at the U.S. Naval Base Guam on the southern end of the American island territory in the western Pacific.

HOTEL QUARANTINE ON GUAM

An initial group of 1,000 sailors moved from the ship onto the base on Wednesday have been placed in isolation if they test positive for the virus or show flu-like symptoms, or are quarantined if they are well and test negative, the region’s U.S. Navy commander, Rear Admiral John Menoni, said during a news conference on the island on Thursday.

Those who remain asymptomatic and test negative will be transported to a vacant hotel about 8 miles away in Guam’s commercial Tumon district, where they will be quarantined for two weeks, territorial Governor Lourdes Leon Guerrero told Reuters. The quarantine will be overseen entirely by the U.S. military, she said.

The Navy said 2,700 crew would ultimately be removed from the ship over the next few days, and that 93 personnel have so far tested positive.

“This ship has weapons on it. It has munitions on it... It requires a certain number of people on that ship to maintain the safety and security of the ship,” Modly said.

Menoni insisted that the aircraft carrier, despite the outbreak, “is not incapacitated” and “could go to sea tomorrow if conditions required.”

The admiral said he was unaware of any discussions surrounding possible discipline of the ship’s captain, adding, “That’s not my role.”

As a U.S. Navy commander, Menoni said, “We have a moral obligation ... to look after our folks because they’re the biggest part of any effective weapon system.”

As the outbreak unfolded, frustration grew over the Navy’s speed in dealing with the crisis, a sailor onboard the Theodore Roosevelt told Reuters.

“Why does it seem that our (commanding officer) is begging the Navy to take care of us and keep us safe, and higher-ups don’t seem to be quickly making a good plan for us?” said the sailor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Over the past few days, sailors’ relatives have expressed concern on social media.

“As a mother I feel helpless,” Barbara Muni, who said her son is on the ship, wrote on the carrier’s Facebook page.

Guam’s governor said some residents of the island, whose tourist-based economy has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, had been “pushing back” against welcoming the stricken aircraft carrier to shore.

But she was assured the sailors would be kept completely isolated from Guam’s population.

“These are our sailors who go out in harm’s way to protect our security in this part of the world,” she said. “I feel I have the moral obligation to reciprocate if I could.”

As of Thursday, Leon Guerrero said, Guam had 77 known cases of coronavirus, including three deaths.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman from Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Gerry Doyle

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