Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect breaking news.
As the man responsible for the lives of nearly 5,000 Americans aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, US Navy Captain Brett E. Crozier had a duty to act when the deadly COVID-19 virus started spreading through his ship last month. The fact that Crozier is now the carrier’s ex-commander, his Navy career in tatters, and his name smeared by Trump administration functionaries, will be remembered as an indictment of the administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Theodore Roosevelt is one of 11 American aircraft carriers, floating symbols of American military might. Crozier, a 50-year-old Annapolis graduate, took the prestigious position commanding the San Diego-based carrier in November. Several sailors are thought to have picked up the coronavirus during a port call in Vietnam; the infection then started spreading quickly among the crew. Marine vessels, whether cruise ships or warships, are especially vulnerable to outbreaks: In the tightly packed quarters of an aircraft carrier, social distancing isn’t possible.
According to news reports, Crozier sent urgent messages to the Navy asking for help to protect his sailors, in particular by taking them to quarantine ashore so the ship could be cleaned. The San Francisco Chronicle got hold of one of his appeals, a four-page letter tinged with desperation. If the United States were at war, he said, the Navy can and would fight sick. But, he noted, “we are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”
No parent of a sailor aboard the vessel, and no American, could fault the captain’s motives, and after the leak of the letter, the Navy finally started offloading sailors as Crozier had asked. But in Washington, where the Trump administration has been attempting to convince the public that it’s on top of the coronavirus crisis, news of an uncontrolled outbreak aboard a US military vessel wasn’t welcome.
And so, days after the message became public, the Navy’s acting secretary, Thomas Modly, took action: On Thursday, he fired Crozier. The administration accused him of going outside the chain of command to raise his warnings.
Dramatic footage showed the captain leaving the ship after his firing, walking down the gangway alone, to the cheers of the crew he had probably sacrificed his career to protect.
On Monday, adding insult to injury, Modly addressed the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew over the carrier’s PA system, saying that, given the leak, Crozier had been “too naive or too stupid” for command, and using loaded language to attack the captain. “It was a betrayal,” Modly said, a word with particular resonance in the military. But Modly also revealed what seems to be the true source of the administration’s ire. “And I can tell you one other thing: Because he did that, he put it in the public’s forum, and it is now a big controversy in Washington, D.C.” (Modly resigned Tuesday after a backlash against his attacks on the captain.)
The fact that it took a leak to the press for the military to respond to a dire situation on the Roosevelt is a reflection on the current administration, not the carrier’s former commander. For as long as the White House continues to downplay the extent of the coronavirus crisis, it will be putting the lives of civilians and service members alike at risk. For as long as it punishes truth-tellers, it will deter the transparency that’s needed to fight the disease. The sense of duty that led one naval commander to fight for the health of his sailors, whatever the cost, has been absent from a commander in chief who ought to feel a similar duty to fight for the health of the country.
Even as the death toll has passed 10,000 in the United States, the president continues to shrink from his job, babbling about unproven cures or taking potshots at governors trying to save the lives of their citizens. Crozier, meanwhile, is in isolation in Guam. He has tested positive for the coronavirus. He may not have followed to the letter the military’s rules when he sounded the alarm about the urgent threat aboard the Theodore Roosevelt, but his heroism is clear. A truly patriotic Navy secretary, defense secretary, and president would commend such an act, not punish it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.