The rousing show of support provided another gripping scene to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic: the rank and file cheering a boss they viewed as putting their safety ahead of his career.
It was a send-off for the ages, with hundreds of sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt cheering Capt. Brett E. Crozier, the commander who sacrificed his naval career by writing a letter to his superiors demanding more help as the novel coronavirus spread through the ship.
The rousing show of support provided the latest gripping scene to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic: the rank and file shouting their admiration for a boss they viewed as putting their safety ahead of his career.
The memes were quick to sprout on social media. On Reddit, one depicted Captain Crozier forced to choose between rescuing his career or his sailors from a burning building; he chooses his sailors. On Twitter, a slew of videos showed Captain Crozier’s walk down the gangway in Guam, most of them depicting him as a hero struck down by his superiors for trying to save the lives of his crew. “Wrongfully relieved of command but did right by sailors,” wrote Twitter user Dylan Castillo, alongside a video of Captain Crozier leaving his ship.
But in removing Captain Crozier from command, senior Navy officials said they were protecting the historic practice that complaints and requests have to go up a formal chain of command. They argued that by sending his concerns to 20 or 30 people in a message that eventually leaked to news organizations, Captain Crozier showed he was no longer fit to lead the fast-moving effort to treat the crew and clean the ship.
His removal from prestigious command of an aircraft carrier with almost 5,000 crew members has taken on an added significance, as his punishment is viewed by some in the military as indicative of the government’s handling of the entire pandemic, with public officials presenting upbeat pictures of the government’s response, while contrary voices are silenced.
The cheering by the sailors is the most public repudiation of military practices to battle the virus since the pandemic began. At the Pentagon, officials expressed concern about the public image of a Defense Department not doing enough to stay ahead of the curve on the virus.
Notably, the defense of the firing offered by senior Pentagon officials has centered around Captain Crozier not following the chain of command in writing his letter, which found its way to newspapers. In a circuitous explanation, Thomas B. Modly, the acting Navy secretary, said that Captain Crozier’s immediate superior did not know that the captain was going to write the letter, offering that act as an error in leadership and one of the reasons the Navy had lost confidence in the Roosevelt captain.
But a Navy official familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly about it said that the captain had repeatedly asked his superiors for speedy action to evacuate the ship. His letter, the official said, came because the Navy was still minimizing the risk.
Mr. Modly insisted that his firing the captain for writing a letter asking for more help does not mean that subordinate officers are not allowed to raise criticisms and ask for assistance. “To our commanding officers,” Mr. Modly told reporters on Thursday, “it would be a mistake to view this decision as somehow not supportive of your duty to report problems, request help, protect your crews, challenge assumptions as you see fit.”
But the removal of Captain Crozier will likely have a chilling effect on the willingness of commanders to bring bad news to their superiors.
“There’s no question they had the authority to remove him,” Kathleen H. Hicks, a former top Pentagon official in the Obama administration, said in an email. “The issue is one of poor judgment in choosing to do so. They are fueling mistrust in leader transparency, among service members, families, and surrounding/hosting communities.”