By Chris Stone
While San Diegans fight a culture war over masks and social distancing, the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt won their battle with the coronavirus before docking back home Thursday, according to the carrier’s captain.
“What is being done in society with masks, social distancing and cleaning — those measures absolutely worked,” said Capt. Carlos Sardiello, commanding officer of the Roosevelt at North Island Naval Station.
“We absolutely stopped it in its tracks,” he said of the outbreak that forced an early port visit to Guam when more than 1,100 crew members testing positive for COVID-19 with about seven hospitalizations.
More than a half of the 5,000 crew members were quarantined at various locations on Guam until cases were cleared.
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One crew member, Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Charles Thacker, 41, died April 13 of complications from the virus.
Calling the six-month deployment both “challenging and successful,” Sardiello told reporters morale was high because of teamwork and tenacity during exercises in the Indo-Pacific.
Beating the virus involved extensive cleaning three times a day, bleaching common areas and daily temperature and symptom checks that were documented and tracked, according to Daniel Wright, an air traffic controller first class assigned to the ship.
“We having been living in our own protective bubble for the past 35 days,” Wright said as sailors stepped out into a region that’s recently seen a record number of COVID cases.
Although Wright never tested positive for the virus, he said he was aware of others who lost their senses of taste and smell, a common symptom in milder cases.
The Navy reported that crew member Aviation Electronics Technician Chief Petty Officer Justin Calderone died last week, but the Navy doesn’t believe his passing was virus-related.
Along with the virus outbreak, the crew dealt with the removal of their captain, Brett Crozier.
Wright said of Crozier: “I have nothing but great things to say about his leadership. He brought us to this point and brought us into Guam.”
He said he was grateful for everything Crozier did for the crew and ship “and for getting us the assistance that we needed when it was discovered that the coronavirus was out of our hands and required further assistance.”
Crozier was relieved of command shortly after he sent an email to other Navy commanders urging help with the COVID-19 situation. Its eventual publication in news outlets led then-Navy Secretary Thomas Modly to fire Crozier and state his belief that Crozier purposely shared his email with unauthorized parties.
The Navy upheld Crozier’s firing last month. Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, said the decision against reinstating Crozier had to do with his apparently questionable response to the outbreak, rather than the email.
To foster high morale for the remainder of the deployment, Sardiello said he promoted a social media connection aboard the ship and started a private Facebook page, where members could “share information, share our concerns and show support for each other.”
Other morale boosters included social distancing physical fitness, watching streamed TV shows and playing Bingo, the captain said.
Sardiello said they learned a lot about the virus in the past few months through studies of the effects on crew members and that telemedicine and teledentistry was used in minor cases, so sailors didn’t have to go down to medical rooms.
The Roosevelt sailed over 31,835 nautical miles, supporting dual-carrier operations, expeditionary strike force operations, air defense exercises and joint-service interoperability exercises.
The ship also made a historic port visit to Da Nang, Vietnam, only the second time a U.S. aircraft carrier has visited the country since the Vietnam War.
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier was commissioned in 1986 and will move to a new homeport, Bremerton, Washington, ahead of scheduled maintenance slated for next summer.
Speaking of the ship’s return after six months, Sardiello said, “The crew is incredibly excited to be back here at home to enjoy some downtime.”
With the ship deemed virus-free, families and city residents need not be concerned about ship members spreading the virus, Navy officers said, but crew members have been trained about their social behavior off ship including mask wearing and social distancing.
Not only was the deployment unsettling, but the homecoming also didn’t include the traditional greeting by thousands of family members, waiting with balloons, signs and flowers.
About 11 a.m. Thursday, only a few families waited across the street with signs and balloons.
“We were briefed that this would be a homecoming unlike any we had experienced on previous deployments,” Wright said after stepping onto the dock.
“As I myself manned the rails up on the tower of the ship, it was a sobering feeling seeing that we didn’t have our families out here after we had been gone for so long.”
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