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Navy Must Take Extreme Steps To Fix COVID-19 Problems, Mabus Says


A U.S. aircraft carrier is kind of like a floating city.

RAY MABUS: You got about 5,000 people onboard. There is no place to get away from anybody, no place to social distance. People literally live on top of each other. Bunks are three high. Everyone eats together. The passageways are very narrow.

GREENE: That's former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. He is deeply worried about the outbreak of coronavirus on at least one ship - the USS Roosevelt. Nearly 600 crew members contracted COVID-19 and one died.

MABUS: Somebody described a carrier or really any naval ship as a perfect petri dish for a virus.

GREENE: And this is why Mabus says the U.S. Navy must do something severe.

MABUS: Bring virtually every Navy ship into port, take a vast majority of the sailors off, thoroughly sanitize the ship and then put the sailors back out.

GREENE: There are critics who say that that really reduces the readiness of the military to be pulling all sailors off all of these carriers at once. I mean, doesn't that make the United States much weaker, and isn't that something that an enemy could take advantage of?

MABUS: Well, the big concern is that if you don't do that, you're going to make us much weaker over a much, much longer period of time. And you're not going to be able to respond. You're going to have the situation that you've got all the Roosevelt. You've already had three more carriers that have had sailors to test positive for the coronavirus. And it's not just the carriers. It's all 300 ships.

And yes, you will have a dip in readiness. And if an enemy tries to take advantage of that, then that's when you do ignore the virus. That's when you go back to sea with everybody on board regardless of how they've tested. And you go do what the Navy does, and that's fight and win.

GREENE: Is it safe to step back and call this virus a national security risk to the United States?

MABUS: I think it's not only safe, it's the only thing you can call it. And it's not just Navy ships, but it's also - the Marines have closed their boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., the Navy boot camp at Great Lakes, Ill. They are quarantining everybody that comes for 14 days before they start boot camp. You're looking at a very different world.

GREENE: I do want to ask you about Brett Crozier, of course, the former commander of the Roosevelt - fired after he sent that email pleading for help to stem the outbreak. You know, there are some who say that he was trying to protect his sailors. There are others who say that he broke the chain of command, and that is something that is sacred in the military no matter the circumstances. His fate is being weighed by the Navy now. Do you think he should be reinstated?

MABUS: I think he should not have been relieved of command. He shouldn't have been fired. And now the facts that are coming out sort of piecemeal says that he did go up through his chain of command, that that's who he appealed to. And so the Navy is going to have to take a close look at where the chain of command failed him. Because when he sent the letter, he clearly knew that it would probably end his career, but he was willing to do it to protect his sailors. And I think that's what true leadership really looks like.

GREENE: The fact that we are even talking about this - I mean, a naval commander having to think about whether to break the chain of command, whether or not to bring nearly all, if not all, of U.S. aircraft carriers into ports to unload all the sailors on board - what does that all tell us about what we are facing here?

MABUS: I think overall it tells us two things - No. 1 - we are facing an incredibly serious, an incredibly deadly, an incredibly implacable foe in COVID-19. I think the other thing that it tells us is that the tone starts from the top. You've got a president who has been willing to interfere completely inappropriately in purely military decisions - pardoning war criminals, deciding who gets to be a Navy SEAL, calling high-ranking officers my generals and saying about Captain Crozier, well, I may have to get involved here. And the fact that you're still seeing the Navy trying to do all its missions while putting its sailors at risk tracks almost exactly with trying to reopen the country against the advice of every medical professional.

GREENE: Secretary Mabus, thank you so much. We really appreciate your time.

MABUS: Appreciate it, David. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.