U.S. Navy on Thursday removed Brett Crozier, captain of the coronavirus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt, for mishandling communications over how the outbreak.
Rear Admiral Carlos Sardiello, a former captain of the warship, will replace Crozier.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said Crozier was wrong to distribute to a wide range of people copies of an emotional, four-page letter describing the threat of the outbreak to the ship’s nearly 5,000 sailors.
Modly said Crozier allowed the letter to be leaked in the media even before top defence officials saw it.
He said out of the 114 cases of the coronavirus aboard the warship, none was severe.
He claimed Crozier overstated the severity when he suggested sailors were going to die without fast action.
Crozier “demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis” in his handling of the letter, Modly said.
“It misrepresented the facts of what was going on the ship” and created “a little bit of panic” that was unnecessary, he said.
“I have no doubt in my mind that Captain Crozier did what he thought was in the best interests of the safety and well-being of his crew,” said Modly.
“Unfortunately, it did the opposite.”
In addition to frightening families of the sailors, he said, “it raised concerns about the operational capabilities and operational security of that ship that could have emboldened our adversaries to seek advantage.”
Crozier’s letter, which leaked Tuesday, sparked concern that the virus was out of control and suggested the Navy leadership was not responding.
Crozier stunned experts by saying the ship had to be evacuated to ensure the coronavirus does not spread further.
Modly said the situation was exaggerated and that it was not correct that the Navy leadership was not addressing the problem at the time the letter went out.
“We require our commanders with judgment, maturity and leadership composure under pressure to understand the ramifications of their actions within that larger, dynamic strategic context.”
The Roosevelt, one of two US Navy carriers in the western Pacific, is now docked in Guam where most of the crew is being offloaded and placed in shore housing to decontaminate the vessel.
By sidelining the Roosevelt, the virus outbreak has hobbled a key asset of US military readiness, though US defense officials say there are no immediate strategic threats and that the ship can be put to sea quickly if required.
Earlier this week Defense Secretary Mark Esper said adversaries’ armed forces are also challenged by COVID-19.