Sailors wearing face masks unload meals ready to eat from the USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam. Navy photo

You know your own level of concern with the worsening COVID-19 situation. You focus on those who are dear. You want to protect them from this potential harm. Imagine your level of concern when you can’t provide the protection they need.

Consider the state of nearly 5,000 people on an area of fewer than 5 acres with residential space limited to single-digit square feet per person. Then coronavirus invades and begins its ramp up.

Unlike most towns or small cities, or even Manhattan, with populations less dense than an aircraft carrier, you are the commanding officer who, unlike a mayor, is held personally responsible for the safety, health, and welfare of every person in your confined “city.” Capt. Brett Crozier on board USS Theodore Roosevelt had that accountability and responsibility.

In 1988, as a second sea-tour lieutenant, I reported aboard Theodore Roosevelt when the ship was the newest of our aircraft carriers. Although much more spacious than my previous sea duty on a submarine, I saw how space is also at a premium even on a massive aircraft carrier: areas are rightly allocated to mission, while living space is tight.

Berthing for a few thousand of the women and men is extremely dense, not to mention the common heads (showers and toilets). Cleanliness is paramount, and everyone does their part, but you simply cannot achieve the recommended “distancing” to prevent the spread of a contagion. This was the situation for thousands of Theodore Roosevelt sailors when COVID-19 hit.

On March 30, Crozier wrote about the crisis emerging on his ship. News continues to play out about the nature of his communications of the dire situation. We may know more as time goes on. We may hear about a less than responsive chain of command. We may see attempts to “write him off” and assassinate his character. We may see justifications of, and by, the former acting Secretary of the Navy. Perhaps a Presidential tweet is forthcoming. We may also learn more about the bold action of a captain who knew the career consequences he would very likely suffer in taking extraordinary measures for the health and safety, even the lives, of his crew.

Or not. Perhaps we won’t hear anything, as the military has ways of handling this. They can and will manage their own message. It will likely include ad hominem attacks. Ultimately, they can’t shoot the messenger, but they can show him the door.

I know, first-hand, about “showing the door” from a couple of generations ago.

In 1973, the returning POWs from Hanoi were the centerpiece of the Nixon administration’s public relations campaign to take attention away from the abject waste of that war by aiming a spotlight on the real or perceived heroism of the POWs. Operation Homecoming — with its “peace with honor” slogan — was intended as a diversion to quell the whisperings that “we lost a war.”

After the last group of POWs had returned, on April 1, 1973, Mike Wallace interviewed one of those returnees on “60 Minutes” — my father. Gene Wilber was the commanding officer of a Navy fighter squadron in 1968 when he was shot down over North Vietnam and was detained in Hanoi until 1973. While captive, he spoke out against the war. From where he was sitting, it was clear to him that a swift end to a slowly unwinding war would save countless lives, on both sides.

What does the military do when senior officers persist on principle and exercise their right to call out an issue? The Navy tried to court-martial my dad. After months of preliminary inquiry, the Judge Advocate General of the Navy, in confidence, advised the Secretary of the Navy that they would lose the case. Three weeks later, the Secretary of the Navy dismissed the charges, positioning the dismissal as an act of benevolence.

Similarly, we may never know what goes on behind the curtain regarding Capt. Crozier. The acting Secretary of the Navy at the time already weighed in on this for his own damage-control purposes. We may not be able to get to the truth of this for some time as it may be swept into a dustbin. Opinions will polarize and memories will cloud. The government will characterize this situation as they will, for their purposes. We’ve seen this happen before.

If I were betting on who did the right thing on this one, my money is on Crozier. This was an extreme situation during an unscripted pandemic, and he very likely saved lives.

Tom Wilber is a retired Navy commander and was a division officer aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt. He and co-author Jerry Lembcke are publishing “The Heritage of Conscience: From Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison for America Today,” a book forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.

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