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A Navy Captain’s Brave Fight Against Coronavirus

A Navy Captain’s Brave Fight Against Coronavirus

Monday, 6 April, 2020 - 05:30

I have been a ship captain, a commodore in charge of a group of destroyers, and an admiral in command of a carrier strike group with a nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. In the course of my career, I made many hard choices at sea in both peace and combat — but I never faced the kind of hard choice that the captain of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Brett Crozier, just had to make.

Faced with the coronavirus sweeping through his 5,000-sailor crew, he reached out to his chain of command and requested permission to abort his assigned mission patrolling the Pacific and South China Sea, and come to all stop at Guam to disinfect his ship and save his crew from unnecessary medical risks. The Navy has now relieved him of command of the carrier. How should we evaluate his actions in the face of an invisible but deadly foe?

Let’s start by understanding what life on a Navy warship is like. Think of the kitchen in a suburban home — a fairly nice sized one with an island and granite counters. That’s about the size of most Navy “berthing compartments,” the bunk room where the sailors sleep. In that space, a dozen sailors each have a tight single bunk bed and a small locker to store their clothes. They will share a shower, a couple of sinks and a commode or two.

When the sailors queue up for meals, it is a long human line, snaking down a tight corridor, with everyone packed together on one side to allow people to pass to and from their assigned stations. Even the watch stations on the bridge and in the combat information center have everyone seated shoulder to shoulder.

It is the exact opposite of the social distancing civilians have rightly been asked to practice. The 18th century wit Samuel Johnson said of Britain’s Royal Navy that serving in a warship is like “is being in jail, with the chance of being drowned.” Life on a Navy ship isn’t as bad as jail, of course, but you get the idea.

So those berthing compartments, unfortunately, have become “birthing compartments,” as in birthing the coronavirus. When Crozier first heard he had a few cases, he must have felt his heart skip a beat, as the odds were high that many, many more cases were already circulating through the crew. Very shortly, he had 20 cases, then 50, then 100. His physicians, consulting with the Navy medical establishment ashore, would no doubt have recommended doing all the things that were tried on cruise ships — isolating the sick, treating them as best they could (even a carrier has only a handful of medical personnel onboard), spreading out everyone else, and testing as many as possible.

The problem, of course, is that unlike a cruise liner — where passengers can hunker down in their own stateroom — those berthing compartments, chow lines and watch stations were designed for close-quarter contact. And to make it worse, everybody is sitting on a nuclear reactor that is loaded with jet fuel, high-grade explosives, bombs and missiles.

Crozier certainly knows that the mission comes first. And in his heartfelt letter, he acknowledged that if we were in a war, he would simply do the best he could, hope most of the infected had only mild symptoms, and go to the fight weakened but hopefully operational. But the USS Theodore Roosevelt was not headed to war, a circumstance in which the health of the force has to come first. In this case, the extraordinary choice was to evacuate the crew (all but the 10% needed to run the reactor and disinfect the ship) and keep the ship parked in Guam for at least two weeks.

Having felt many times the surge of pride that goes with leading a ship into a deployment, I cannot imagine how wrenching the feeling of signing that letter must have been for the captain. But he made the right choice, so I was deeply surprised to learn that Navy has removed him. We need to more about that decision, given the captain’s obvious concern for his crew.

This hard choice is only one of many coming for the military in dealing with the virus. Think of the coronavirus sweeping through the even tighter quarters of a ballistic-missile submarine. Or a crew in a land-based missile silo, or on alert with the strategic bomber force. Or the cramped the military headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, where I spent much time while I commanded NATO’s forces there. On and on, the risk will be high and the solutions difficult — especially for units that are in combat conditions or on high-end nuclear-alert posture.

It is easy to see why so many Americans, particularly politicians and public-health officials, are looking to the military for help in dealing with the coronavirus. And I heartily applaud the deployment of hospital ships, National Guard units and Air Force transport planes for medical supplies, to cite but a few examples. But we need to realize that our armed forces — like our doctors, nurses, police, firemen and first responders — will have to guard their own health first before they can come help and defend the rest of us.

The military has a first responsibility to keep the nation safe from external threats. Finding the right balance between fulfilling that role and helping domestically will be a challenge. Godspeed and open water, as we say in the Navy, to the crew of good ship Roosevelt.


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