The top military leader who approved the decision to send an aircraft carrier to Vietnam, resulting in a coronavirus outbreak on the ship, said the move met travel and health recommendations at the time.
Adm. Phil Davidson, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, on Tuesday defended his call to allow the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and a second ship to make a four-day port stop in Vietnam in March. Within weeks, sailors on the Roosevelt began testing positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
The cases spread rampantly, resulting in more than 1,200 infected crew members. One of them, a 41-year-old chief petty officer, died. The crisis also led the ship's captain to be relieved of command, the former acting Navy secretary to abruptly resign from his post, and a flag officer's promotion to face new scrutiny.
"The decision to go to Vietnam ... was done with the complete collaboration of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Seventh Fleet, the carrier strike group, the carrier, and certainly our embassy in Vietnam," Davidson said during a Defense Writers Group event.
They followed the advice of medical experts, he added, and the port call met State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations at the time.
The Navy's second investigation into the circumstances surrounding an email that the Roosevelt's former commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, wrote warning Navy leaders about the growing health crisis on the ship found Davidson was not at fault for approving the stop in Vietnam.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told reporters last month that Davidson's decision to go into port was "sound."
President Donald Trump in April blamed Crozier for the decision to allow the Roosevelt to make the March port call in Vietnam, despite Davidson, the combatant commander, having given final approval.
"Perhaps you don't do that in the middle of a pandemic or something that looked like it was going to be," Trump said. "History says you don't necessarily stop and let your sailors get off."
Some Navy officials said around that time that they believed delivery flights brought COVID-19 onto the ship. Gilday said last month, after the investigation into the crisis was released, that the cases originated in Vietnam.
Davidson on Tuesday declined to address questions about the investigation faulting poor communication at lower commands playing a role in the Roosevelt's coronavirus outbreak or whether higher-level leaders should be held accountable.
"I'm not going to comment further on the CNOs investigation," the admiral said. "He's passed that investigation on now to [Commander of Pacific Fleet Adm. John Aquilino]. He's got a set of accountability actions that the CNO asked him to look at, and Adm. Aquilino's got that in hand.
"In my position, I can't offer anything else on this without undue influencing the process."