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The USS Theodore Roosevelt Incident: Another Threat to The Civilian–Military Relationship

  • Published
  • By RADM Tom Jurkowsky, USN (Ret.)


When Thomas Modly resigned as the acting Secretary of the Navy on 7 April, the military trade newspaper Navy Times said the resignation capped “perhaps the most tumultuous 24-hour public relations fiasco the sea service has ever encountered.”1

The scenario that led to Modly’s resignation began when Capt Brett Crozier, USN, the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, wrote an e-mail with an attached letter that pleaded for help in fighting a COVID-19 outbreak on his ship. Modly contended Crozier used poor judgment in sending the letter to several individuals outside his chain of command.

After Modly ordered Crozier’s relief from Washington, he flew to Guam to speak to the crew to explain his rationale. His address went over like the proverbial “lead balloon.” In his remarks, laden with coarse language, he referred to the ship’s beloved skipper as being “naïve” and “stupid.” His remarks were quickly and widely reported by both trade and general media. Even before he returned to Washington, several members of Congress began calling for Modly’s firing over how he handled Crozier’s dismissal.

Certainly, this is a case of poor judgment—not by Crozier but by Modly. In sending his four-page letter outlining the situation aboard the Theodore Roosevelt and requesting help, Crozier demonstrated that he cared for his people and the ultimate readiness of his ship. That’s what commanding officers are supposed to do. Modly’s decision clearly undermined the authority of military leaders who try to take care of their troops. Particularly now that—as I write this—one of the Theodore Roosevelt’s infected crew has died, the decision to relieve the worried commanding officer for seeking help seems horribly misplaced.

(US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Liaghat)

Figure 1. COVID-19 strikes the USS Theodore Roosevelt. US Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) depart the ship to move to off-ship berthing 10 April 2020. Upon arriving in Guam 27 March, Theodore Roosevelt established an emergency command center, initiated a roving and deep cleaning team, and continually educated the crew on social distancing and proper protective procedures and behaviors to assist the crew in mitigating and controlling the spread of COVID-19. Theodore Roosevelt is in Guam for a scheduled port visit for resupply and crew rest during their scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific.

That Modly did this from the seat of government 8,000 miles away while bypassing or overruling the military chain of command—four admirals—shows a gross lack of self-control and a disrespect for the authority and experiences of his uniformed subordinates. A not insignificant detail is that he also abrogated his responsibility as the senior reviewing official if Crozier chooses to appeal the relief, as is his right.

Perhaps more important than Modly’s conduct, however, is this being a further example of a dangerous politicization of our military. The threat to the neutrality and objectivity of the military chain of command, specifically senior uniformed commanders by their civilian supervisors, is growing. A few examples will serve to show this.

The “Cover-Up” of the USS John S. McCain

Just prior to Pres. Donald Trump’s visit to Japan and a meeting with Sailors in May 2019, members of the White House military office asked the Navy either to move the USS John S. McCain out of sight or cover up the name of the ship, a guided missile destroyer undergoing repairs. It was no secret President Trump and Sen. John S. McCain III had disdain for each other. The ship had been named after the senator’s father and grandfather, both four-star admirals, and the senator himself. The blowback was immediate but not before the damage had been done. Once senior Navy leaders in Japan learned about the request, a tarp that had been placed over the ship’s name was removed. The president’s chief of staff characterized the White House request as “much ado about nothing” and “not an unreasonable request.”2 This disingenuous explanation would hardly have reassured the McCain’s crew.

Political Leaders Making Political Statements at Meetings with the Troops

In the commissioning ceremony for the USS Gerald R. Ford in 2017, President Trump asked a crowd that included active duty military personnel to call members of Congress and advocate not only for stronger defense spending but also for his policy on health care. It was not unusual for President Trump to insert a political message into his remarks to military audiences. At a speech to military personnel at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, in 2017, he said, “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we? And I saw those numbers, and you liked me, and I liked you.”3

Similarly, Vice Pres. Mike Pence followed his boss’s lead when he spoke to American troops in Jordan on the border with Syria in 2018. In that speech, the vice president attacked Democrats in the middle of a budget battle that had caused a government shutdown.4

It’s not unusual, of course, for political leaders to meet with military troops. In fact, it’s expected.

“As long as the message from the president is how wonderful it is that they are doing a service for the country, that’s great,” says Charles Blanchard, a former general counsel for the Army and Air Force. “But when it turns into a political rally, what do people see? They see enthusiastic soldiers clapping and yelling for a partisan message.”5

Military Uniforms at a Political Campaign Rally

The danger of political messaging at military gatherings is that it may give military personnel the feeling that appearing at political rallies in uniform for candidates is appropriate. It’s not. In fact, it’s prohibited by the Hatch Act, a law that restricts members of the military from any partisan political activities. A major in the Army National Guard is facing scrutiny for improper partisan political activity after appearing in uniform at a campaign event for Joe Biden in South Carolina.6 Biden, of course, is running for president and is the likely Democrat candidate. Yet, President Trump routinely appears at his rallies with military people in uniform as a backdrop. In the same way, his signing hats that carry his campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again,” provides sanction and encouragement to our troops to get involved politically while wearing their uniforms. This type of appearance is destructive to the principle that in a democracy the military as an institution must remain politically blind.

The Dismissal of General Shinseki as Army Chief of Staff

In 2003, just before the Iraqi War, Gen Eric Shinseki told Congress that occupying Iraq might require hundreds of thousands of troops for an extended period of time. Shinseki’s assessment, based in part on his experience as NATO commander in Bosnia, was immediately contradicted and rebuked by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who said the general was “way off the mark.” Shinseki was forced to retire more than a year early and without the usual celebration. Four years later, Pres. George W. Bush ordered a rapid increase in forces, an implicit acknowledgment that the number of troops that were initially sent to Iraq had not been enough. Obviously, General Shinseki had been correct in his initial assessment. To his credit and to this day, he has never said so. This was a clear example of political leaders dismissing military advice and firing the leader who provided it. Shinseki did his best to restore the balance of neutrality and objectivity.

Calling On the Navy to Cancel a New Catapult System

In designing and building the Gerald R. Ford, the Navy made the decision to install a revolutionary new catapult system that had been years in development. Instead of using steam to launch aircraft, the new carrier will use what is called linear induction motors. Referred to as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), the system will launch aircraft more smoothly, putting less stress on the airframes and thereby extending their operational lives. The new catapults also weigh less, will cost less, and require less maintenance. They also reduce the requirement of fresh water for making steam, reducing the demand for energy-intensive desalination.7

Despite his lack of knowledge and experience with aircraft carrier catapults, President Trump weighed in on the subject during an interview with Time magazine in 2017, criticizing EMALS as costing “hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good”—a claim he repeated during a visit to the shipyard. Even if he was right, there is no evidence of this, and no authority has been able to counter the Navy’s new catapult system. The Navy would have to spend several billion dollars and more than a year to redesign and rebuild the ship, taking a vital national asset offline when it is sorely needed.

Intercession in the Case of a Navy SEAL

When Chief Petty Officer Edward R. Gallagher, a Navy SEAL, was charged with killing an already wounded ISIS fighter in Iraq, several of his teammates reported the crime and others Gallagher committed in shooting Iraqi civilians. He was acquitted of the specified charges in July 2020 but convicted of lesser charges, sent to the brig, and reduced in rank. President Trump involved himself in the case early on—even telephoning Gallagher before his trial—and commented frequently on the matter before, during, and afterward. After the trial was over, he restored Gallagher’s rank and ordered the Navy to drop plans for a review board that would decide whether Gallagher deserved to wear the prestigious SEAL warfare pin.8 The intervention by the president was unprecedented and another example of the trend toward the politicization of the military.

General McChrystal Publicly Criticizes President Obama

When several members of the staff of Gen Stanley McChyrstal, Commander of US and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, were quoted in a Vanity Fair article in 2009 as being critical of Pres. Barack Obama, Vice Pres. Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Gen James Jones and others, McChyrstal was forced to resign. Although McChrystal was not quoted directly in the article, it was clear his staff members were reflecting his disagreement with Obama over a request by McChyrstal for 40,000 additional troops in the region. To preserve the principle of the civilian–military relationship, though rarely threatened during his administration, Obama really had no choice. “As difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe it is the right one [decision],” Obama said. “The conduct represented in the recently-published article . . . undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.”9

In those words, Obama encapsulated the essence of why we should be worried about the erosion of the civilian­–military relationship—the threat of a dissolution of the trust and a level of respect that was formed by the vision of our founding fathers. It has happened far too often in recent years, and it’s a trend that must, through conscientious efforts on both sides, stop once and for all.


The framers of our Constitution worked hard to ensure that the military would be under civilian control. They did not want to replicate what they saw in Europe. The colonies had just fought the war for their freedom from Britain. It was clear from the outcome that tightly-bound relationships between the government and a military operating thousands of miles overseas would not work in newly independent America. Accordingly, the framers wanted that responsibility of controlling the military to be placed in the hands of civilians, i.e., a Congress composed of representatives elected by the people sharing power with an executive branch staffed by civilians, properly appointed and confirmed, with both branches subject to judicial review. This structure, of course, forms our democratic form of government.

That does not mean the military with its leadership, training, and experience should be shunted to the side and arbitrarily dismissed. The military leadership envisioned by our founders is expected to provide its counsel and advice based on that training and experience. However, it’s quite understood that the ultimate decision makers are the civilians, balancing military and larger political concerns.

Any officer who has ever worn the uniform has been ingrained to operate with the following maxim: “Always provide your best advice but know that it may not be taken. When told what the final decision is, you smartly salute, say ‘aye aye’ and follow the orders you are given.” Stated another way, civilian control of the military requires that differences in opinion be aired in private.

Adherence to this ethos seems to have gotten lost over the past several years. The practice of senior retired officers endorsing political candidates is becoming commonplace. President Trump’s insult of members of the Joint Chiefs and four-star combatant commanders as “losers” in his first meeting with them in 2017 sent a message of lasting harm, as did his referring to them as “my generals” during rallies and speeches. They are not “his” generals. Sworn to support and defend the Constitution, they serve the people of this country.

It is a given that political appointees and military leaders often come from widely different backgrounds. The perspectives each side bring to the table are different and can easily lead to tension. But these differences can be resolved when both sides work to understand each other’s perspective. Showing respect for each other’s experiences—perhaps one on the battlefield and the other in challenging civilian enterprises—can go a long way toward building a necessary trust.

Above all, each side needs to show the humility that seeks out advice and listens to it—understanding that there is wisdom to be gained from every vantage point.

This is what the framers desired for our nation. The balancing of perspectives is what has set our nation apart from others for more than two centuries and enabled us to live free and thrive. The threat to the civilian–military relationship must be met if such a critical balance is to be retained.

RADM Tom Jurkowsky, USN (Ret.)

Admiral Jurkowsky served on active duty for 31 years, beginning his career as an enlisted man. He served most of his career as a public affairs officer, serving as the Navy’s Chief of Information in his last assignment. His book, The Secret Sauce of Organization Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page, will soon be released by the Air University Press.


2 Benjamin Fearnow, “Trump Chief of Staff Says ‘Not Unreasonable’ to Request Hiding John McCain from President’s View,” Newsweek, 2 June 2019,

3 Michael R. Gordon, “Trump’s Mix of Politics and Military is Faulted,” New York Times, 7 February 2017,

4 Andrea Mitchell and Phil McCausland, “Vice President lays blame on Democrats for shutdown during visit with troops,” NBC News, 21 January 2018,

5 Paul Sonne and Philip Rucker, “Trumps’ visit to Iraq prompts concerns about politicization of military,” Washington Post, 28 December 2018,

6 Paul Sonne, “Army major faces scrutiny for appearance in uniform at Biden campaign event,” Washington Post, 29 August 2019,

7 Ben Werner, “Experts: Navy Would Spend Billions to Answer Trump’s Call to Return Carriers to Steam Catapults,” USNI News, 28 May 28 2019,

8 Andrew Dyer, “All the SEAL’s men: the Fox News campaign that made Eddie Gallagher untouchable,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 29 November 2019,

9 Jim Garamone, “Judgment, civilian control of military key to Obama’s decision to accept resignation,” American Forces Press Service, 25 June 2010,


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