Esper Says He Hasn't Read Captain's Plea From Coronavirus-Stricken Carrier, Dismisses Evacuation Request

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Tuesday evening that he had not "had a chance" to read the four-page letter sent by the captain of an aircraft carrier with an outbreak of coronavirus.

A copy of a letter from U.S. Navy Captain Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt was published by the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday. In the letter, Crozier asks for help evacuating the ship, which is currently docked in Guam. On March 24, three crew members were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19.

"In combat we are willing to take certain risks that are not acceptable in peacetime. However, we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily," Crozier wrote.

"This will require a political solution but it is the right thing to do. We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset—our Sailors," he added.

Though none of the soldiers on the USS Theodore Roosevelt have shown serious symptoms, Crozier asked the Navy to provide "complaint quarantine rooms" in Guam for the entire 4,000-member crew, along with relocating and isolating the crew for two weeks.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said that though the Navy was working to evacuate the aircraft carrier, it was tough going. Modly told CNN that the issue was that there were not enough beds in Guam.

"We're having to talk to the government there to see if we can get some hotel space or create some tent-type facilities there," Modly said.

He also explained that an aircraft carrier always requires at least some crew members to remain on board to manage "critical functions." Modly did tell MSNBC that about 1,000 sailors have already left the carrier.

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Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, shown here at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing concerning the Department of Defense budget on March 4, said that though he did not have a chance to read Capt. Brett Crozier's plea for help, he did not think it was yet time to evacuate the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Drew Angerer/Getty

Appearing on CBS Evening News With Norah O'Donnell, Esper said that he didn't think it was time to evacuate the ship, but told her that medical supplies were being sent, including testing kits to determine how many people had been infected. The secretary also told O'Donnell that he hadn't yet read Crozier's letter in full.

"Well, I have not had a chance to read that letter, read it in detail," Esper said. "Again, I'm going to rely on the Navy chain of command to go out there to assess the situation and to make sure they provide the captain and the crew all the support they need to get the sailors healthy and get the ship back at sea."

Esper did, however, reiterate some of what Crozier said, telling O'Donnell, "Well, nobody of course needs to die at this point in time. We're not at war. Priority number one is taking care of our service members and their families."

Newsweek reached out to the Department of Defense, but did not receive a comment by publication time.