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

US

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy on Wednesday did not rule out punishing the captain of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote a scathing letter to Navy leadership asking for stronger measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

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 onboard 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 service members safe and alarmed the families of those aboard the ship. Its home port is San Diego, California.

“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 if the captain would be punished.

“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 if the Navy did not act now, 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 did not agree with the captain that all but 10 percent of the ship’s crew could be removed.

The carrier was in the Pacific when the Navy reported its first coronavirus case a week ago. It has since pulled into port in Guam, a U.S. island territory in the western Pacific.

About 1,000 personnel have been taken off from the ship so far and that number will rise to 2,700 in the next few days. So far 93 personnel on the ship have 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,” he added.

‘I FEEL HELPLESS’

As coronavirus has spread, frustration has grown over the Navy’s speed in dealing with the crisis, a sailor onboard the Theodore Roosevelt told Reuters, adding that on Wednesday the Navy communicated a satisfactory plan to those on the ship.

“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, there have been messages of concern from family members on social media.

“As a mother I feel helpless… I was able to speak to my son earlier, but he has no idea what is going on or where he is going,” Barbara Muniz, who said her son is on the ship, wrote on the carrier’s Facebook page.

On Monday, Dee Ronmar wrote that her son was on the ship and she did not understand why the carrier was allowed to make a port visit in Vietnam last month.

“How come more safety precautions weren’t taken to ensure no contractions, minimizing the spread, when you all docked a few weeks ago?,” Ronmar wrote.

During the briefing, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith said that “morale does seem high” on the ship.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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