In a four-page letter dated Monday, first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, Capt. Brett E. Crozier of the carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, laid out the dire situation unfolding aboard the warship, with more than 4,000 crew members, and what he said were the Navy’s failures to provide him with the proper resources to combat the virus by moving sailors off the vessel.
“We are not at war,” Captain Crozier wrote. “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.”
The carrier is currently docked in Guam.
The plea highlights a central dilemma facing the military: Top officials, who have spent years placing readiness to fight the next war as a top priority, are now finding that maintaining that readiness during a pandemic can endanger the health, and even the lives, of service members. At the same time that Americans are being told to stay at home and practice “social distancing” in public, many service members are instead being told to continue doing their jobs.
The mixed messages have emerged across the armed services. Last week, the Army ordered a halt to most training, exercises and nonessential activities that require troops to be in close contact, but abruptly reversed itself days later, even as the infection rate within the American military rose. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has insisted that the armed forces find a way to both protect troops from the rampaging virus while performing the military’s essential operations.
Captain Crozier recommended offloading his entire crew, and then quarantining and testing them while the ship was professionally cleaned. But that proposal raised a series of issues, especially as housing more than 4,000 people while also isolating them would be extremely difficult on the island.
The crisis aboard the Roosevelt played out like a slow-moving disaster and highlights the dangers to the Pentagon if the coronavirus manages to infiltrate some of its most important assets, such as bomber fleets, elite Special Operations units and the talisman of American military power, aircraft carriers.
In a statement, a Navy official said that the commanding officer of the Roosevelt “alerted leadership in the Pacific Fleet on Sunday evening of continuing challenges in isolating the virus.”
“The ship’s commanding officer advocated for housing more members of the crew in facilities that allow for better isolation,” the statement said. “Navy leadership is moving quickly to take all necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of the crew of U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, and is pursuing options to address the concerns raised by the commanding officer.”
At its core, the issue on the Roosevelt and other warships stems from the near impossibility of putting adequate social distance between people to stop the spread of the illness. The enormous ship, about 20 stories high, is its own city, but one with an extremely dense population.
Life aboard the Roosevelt means learning to live on top of other people, literally: Many of the berths where sailors sleep include bunk beds. Hallways and doorways are cramped. Bathrooms and cafeterias are shared areas. Low ceilings and narrow, ladderlike stairwells that require the use of hands to maneuver up and down all contribute to an ever-present opportunity to spread the virus.
The flight deck of the Roosevelt, on the other hand, is enormous; the Navy likes to describe its carriers as five acres of sovereign territory. But the Navy imposes strict limits on how many people can be on the flight deck at any time.
Navy officials have acknowledged the dangers that ships pose during an infectious disease pandemic. As the world has seen with cruise ships, viruses can spread with frightening ease aboard these vessels. That is one reason Navy officials have been doing all they can to keep the hospital ship Comfort virus-free during its current mission in New York, where it is taking patients with other medical problems to relieve local hospitals overrun by virus patients.
In his letter, Captain Crozier clearly outlined the challenge. “None of the berthing aboard a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation,” he wrote.
A senior Navy official on Sunday sought to play down the urgency of the situation on the Roosevelt, saying that while it was unfortunate, most of the reported symptoms at that point among the sickened sailors and other crew members had been mild.
Last week, Thomas B. Modly, the acting Navy secretary, told reporters that three cases of the virus had been reported aboard the Roosevelt, marking the first time a Navy ship had announced a coronavirus infection at sea.
Fifteen days earlier, the ship made a port call in Da Nang, Vietnam.
Mr. Modly defended the ship’s decision to dock in Vietnam despite the spread of the virus through Asia. He said that, at the time, coronavirus cases in Vietnam were less than 100 and were in the north of the country, around Hanoi. Port calls for Navy ships have since been canceled.
Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, the vice director of operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged on Monday that there had been news reports about the coronavirus aboard the Roosevelt. He declined to go into details for security reasons, he said.
But, echoing a line that the military has consistently taken during the course of the pandemic, General Taliaferro insisted that the Roosevelt can nonetheless perform its missions. If the Roosevelt, in Guam right now, had to sail immediately, General Taliaferro told reporters on a conference call, it was “ready to sail.”
Source: New York Times