WASHINGTON, April 5, 2020 (AFP) - The US naval commander whose widely publicized plea for help for his coronavirus-affected crew led to his dismissal has reportedly himself tested positive for the disease.
Captain Brett Crozier's COVID-19 test result was reported Sunday by the New York Times, just hours after US Defense Secretary Mark Esper defended the captain's firing.
Esper told ABC that Navy Secretary Thomas Modly had "made a tough decision, tough call" in deciding to fire Crozier from his command of the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt, now docked in Guam.
Asked about a report that President Donald Trump wanted Crozier fired, Esper replied, "This was the secretary's call. He came and briefed me ... It was the secretary's call. I told him I would support it."
The firing was widely condemned as a callous and unfair punishment of a respected officer who was looking out for the welfare of his crew when he implored his superiors to let him quickly vacate the ship after it docked in Guam.
"We are not at war," Crozier wrote in a letter that leaked to the press. "Sailors do not need to die."
But some senior Pentagon officials said Crozier erred by letting his plea go public.
Crozier "demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis," needlessly worrying family members and undermining the chain of command, Modly said.
Trump, speaking in a news conference Saturday, supported the dismissal. "He shouldn't be talking that way in a letter," he said of Crozier. "I thought it was terrible what he did."
The Times, in reporting Crozier's test result, cited two of his former classmates at the US Naval Academy. It said he had begun exhibiting symptoms before leaving the ship on Thursday.
Hundreds of sailors cheered Crozier as he left the ship, as seen in video that quickly went viral. Some called him a hero.
Democrats have also sharply criticized the dismissal.
Joe Biden, the leading Democratic candidate for president, condemned the firing on Sunday, telling ABC it was "close to criminal."
"I think he should have a commendation rather than be fired,"the former vice president said.
And a statement from Democratic leaders of the House Armed Services Committee said Crozier might not have handled the matter perfectly, but that his dismissal was an "overreaction."
Protection and readiness
Esper declined Sunday to say whether other Pentagon leaders agreed with the firing, pointing to an ongoing investigation.
He told CNN that more than half the Roosevelt's 4,800-member crew had now been tested for the coronavirus. In all, 155 sailors tested positive but none required hospitalization, he said.
Crozier's dismissal came as the Pentagon struggles, amid the spreading pandemic, to maintain the readiness of its air, sea and ground forces worldwide.
"We have had to cancel exercises. We've had to constrain basic training, for example," Esper said, before adding, "We think those are all manageable."
Esper pointed to the particular challenges facing the military -- it is impossible to respect social distancing in a crowded bomber plane or in the confinement of a nuclear submarine, he told ABC.
He said the military overall was "ahead of the curve" in balancing troops' health and military readiness.
The military has also been called to help the fight against the coronavirus inside the US.
Trump said Saturday that 1,000 military personnel, mostly doctors and nurses, would be deployed to help in New York City, the epicenter of the US outbreak.
Troops have already been helping out at the Javits Convention Center, which has been transformed into an enormous hospital.