By now, I think most of America understands what a complete pain coronavirus is. My God, the governor CLOSED LIQUOR STORES ON TUESDAY. Whether you are dealing with homeschooling, elderly relatives, unemployment or having to go to work at a hospital or a grocery store, this virus totally blows.
If you can imagine, it’s even worse to have an outbreak on a deployed aircraft carrier. Not only is there no booze on board, you are in the middle of nowhere projecting American military might against foreign enemies, you are living on top of a nuclear power plant, under an airport, and your water tastes like jet fuel. Plus you are trying to social distance in cramped industrial spaces and your bed, at best, is three feet from your neighbor’s. And you are sharing a bathroom with maybe 25 people you aren’t related to.
You know where I am going now—what happened on the aircraft carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71) in the last few days. Basically the TR, as she is known in the Fleet, became the New York City of the Navy at the end of March. Nearly half of all COVID-19 cases in the Navy are on TR. The commanding officer (CO) grew increasingly alarmed, sent many messages to leadership requesting relief, and one of the CO’s letters was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, leading to his firing on the 3rd.
Note: the U.S. Navy is doing a far better job of containing coronavirus than Holland America.
Complicating matters for the TR is the typical breathless speculation as to how the President feels about this entire mess. I think the speed at which this whole charlie foxtrot (ask a veteran friend for a direct translation, but “charlie foxtrot” essentially means “hot mess”) unraveled itself was a direct result of trying to act before the White House got involved, or heaven forfend, tweeted.
Cue the onslaught of social media outrage. To be fair, the Navy is delightfully arbitrary about firing commanders and ending careers due to bad luck. There is a long-standing tradition that if something bad happens on the ship you are commanding, you are not going to be promoted (that is precisely what happened to the CO who commanded the USS Cole when it was blown up by terrorists), no matter who is president. So removing the CO is perhaps not much of a surprise.
What came next sure was, however. The acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, got himself to Guam less than 72 hours after sacking the TR CO (ensuring many, many people worked over the weekend and an entire entourage got to enjoy a free DC-to-Guam round-trip flight in the middle of a pandemic…good times!). Apparently his notion was to reassure the crew.
Crisis communication pro tip: Yelling at a crew for 15 minutes that their captain who was trying to save them from a killer virus was “stupid and naïve” does not alleviate the crisis. Yet, that is exactly what Modly did, even throwing in some Sailor-quality expletives into his diatribe. Also, please understand this wasn’t just a speech from a podium to an assembly of the crew. It was broadcast (and recorded) over the 1MC – the shipwide public address system. It’s kind of like doing the pledge of allegiance in the morning at elementary school over the PA system and then the principal coming on and yelling at everyone for hogging the pencil sharpener. In either case, the typical reaction would be puzzlement, shock, and anger.
Additionally, Modly told the crew that the media is the enemy, that their CO betrayed them, and they needed to get their <expletive> together and do their jobs. He also claimed himself some victimhood and told them that his family had been exposed to “hatred and pure evil” over his decision.
I guess the stress of the TR crew’s families isn’t nearly as bad.
Let me assure you that the Secretary of the Navy has some of the finest communication counsel in the world in the Navy public affairs community. I have the distinct pleasure of knowing many of them personally. And Navy Public Affairs has been largely successful in getting their job done during this administration, despite a White House that does not value accurate information. What I don’t know is whether Modly sought advice and disregarded it, ignored his public affairs team completely, or simply lost his temper at the worst possible moment. Regardless, the gaffe is creating more drama, attention, and churn than anyone has time for this week.
Imagine being a TR crewmember. You’re most likely young (the average age on an aircraft carrier is 19). You volunteered to serve our country and do a dangerous job while waiving a number of constitutional rights. You have watched the infection numbers on your ship double twice in four days. You know that the medical care available ashore on Guam is nowhere near the standard we are accustomed to in the continental U.S. Your commander was just kicked off the ship for asking for help. And now the Secretary of the Freaking Navy just created a ton of extra work for everyone simply to have the opportunity to yell and swear at you. Would you re-up after your time is done? Would you encourage others to serve their country?
As of Tuesday, Modly has apologized for his speech to the crew, defended the same speech, and resigned. And there are still a bunch of scared Sailors barely out of their teens stuck on a pandemic ship docked in Guam. As of this date, the nominee awaiting confirmation as permanent Secretary of the Navy is a retired one-star public affairs officer. I wish him all the luck.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at email@example.com .