OP-ED: Capt. Crozier should be commended, not censured for his actions on the USS Roosevelt

D’Juan Wilcher
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is docked at Naval Base Guam in Apra Harbor on April 10, 2020. - At least 416 sailors aboard the aircraft carrier, or 8.6 percent of the ships crew of 4,800, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, with the numbers increasing daily. according to news media reports. (Photo by TONY AZIOS/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

One of the most challenging jobs in the United States Navy is command at sea. This single officer orchestrates often thousands of crew members to work in concert and complete complex daily missions while under crisis to protect America’s national security.

Anyone in this position must possess exceptional leadership qualities, virtue and courage. As our nation faces unprecedented and frightening times, one would hope these traits would be lauded by our nation’s leaders, but this honor was wrongly denied to Capt. Brett Crozier.

On April 1, Capt. Crozier was relieved of his duties for not following protocol when he penned a letter to senior military officials requesting permission to disembark his entire crew in Guam. Three officers on Crozier’s ship, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, had tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks after a stop in Vietnam. President Donald Trump publicly criticized the letter.

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Anyone who has served on a ship knows maintaining a 6-foot social distance is a physical impossibility. Predictably, the virus spread like wildfire. Soon, over 100 sailors tested positive and Crozier requested the crew be allowed to quarantine on land. It was reported Crozier’s letter bypassed his chain of command and used an unclassified system to sound the alarm concerning the well-being of his crew — which he knew was in urgent danger.

Abiding by protocol is part of our culture in the Navy. It is drilled into our heads and expected from us on day one. But the true test of exceptional leadership is knowing when and how to divert from protocol, when that trusted protocol all of a sudden puts your crew in danger.

The U.S. services oath of office provides officers the latitude to apply judgment to the orders that they are to execute. Young naval officers are trained to believe that we have license to draw attention to important issues. And it is our duty to ensure our nation is operating at maximum effectiveness for war or other service. No factor determines effectiveness more than the state of a commander’s personnel.

To relieve Capt. Crozier of his duties for faithfully executing his oath of office, and to do so for a “loss of confidence,” is inconsistent with our values, and could have a chilling effect on the trust sailors have in leadership, and conversely, breed risk-averse officers. Faithful execution of the oath of office and career promotion potential should not be mutually exclusive.

Days after his dismissal, Capt. Crozier tested positive for the coronavirus, nearly 600 other sailors contracted the virus and one of his crew members has died.

Great naval heroes such as Sen. John McCain, Adm. William “Bull” Halsey and Adm. Chester Nimitz all behaved similarly to Capt. Crozier during parts of their career. Should we have fired them too? Although the Navy does not publicly ascribe to a zero-defect mentality, our culture has evolved to be exactly that. The unfortunate example of Capt. Crozier should force the Navy to decide what type of leaders it wishes to breed.

I am professionally disappointed, and frankly, embarrassed by the decision to relieve Capt. Crozier for his selfless action. The decision seemed shortsighted and could negatively impact recruiting.

In the book “Command at Sea,” Adm. James Stavridis wrote, “In each ship there is one man alone who in the hour of emergency or peril at sea can turn to no other man. There is one man alone who is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gunfire and morale of his ship. He is the Commanding Officer; He is the ship.” I was proud to see how Capt. Crozier’s crew supported him as he crossed the brow for the last time.

Capt. Crozier gave a master class in what it means to be a servant leader.

— D’Juan Wilcher is a U.S. Navy reservist and former naval surface warfare officer. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project and serves as a regional director at the Travis Manion Foundation.