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Navy veteran running for Ohio congressional seat turns coronavirus-related firing of ship’s captain into campaign issue

USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) Commanding Officer Capt. Brett Crozier gives his departing remarks during the Blue Ridge change of command ceremony held at Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka. Blue Ridge is the oldest operational ship in the Navy, and as 7th Fleet command ship, is responsible for patrolling and fostering relationships within the Indo-Asia Pacific Region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adam K. Thomas/RELEASED)

During the Iraq war, Democratic congressional candidate Hillary O’Connor Mueri served as a naval flight officer aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier – the same ship whose captain was abruptly dismissed after he broadly disseminated a letter that sought help in containing an onboard coronavirus outbreak.

Now, she’s making a campaign issue of Captain Brett E. Crozier’s firing, which she regards as part of a disturbing Trump administration pattern of political interference in U.S. Navy matters. On Wednesday, her campaign released its first radio ad, which calls Crozier a hero “who was smeared by President Trump for protecting his crew.”

“When I was on the Theodore Roosevelt, I was taught to never leave a shipmate behind,” says Mueri’s ad, in which says she stands with all the other men and women on the USS Theodore Roosevelt to thank Crozier for his service, and declares that she’ll “never leave anyone behind.”

A news release from her campaign said the ad will run on “diverse news and community programs and podcasts and–to ensure that this message gets heard across the district–it will also run during Rush Limbaugh’s radio program.”

In an interview, Mueri, who is trying to unseat Republican Rep. Dave Joyce of Bainbridge Township in the 14th District, said she did not know Crozier, but knows the ship well after spending several months on board during the Iraq war. Given its close quarters, she said she “cannot imagine a better place for the virus to spread unchecked than on a naval vessel.

“There is no privacy, no way to space yourself out from other people, no way to completely sanitize every surface,” Mueri recalled. “There is zero chance you could stay six feet away from everybody. You are talking about nearly 5,000 people on one vessel.”

Although Crozier was dismissed by Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly – another native of the Cleveland area – for distributing the letter outside his chain of command, Mueri argues that Crozier did so when he didn’t get relief in a matter that endangered his crew. Modly resigned Tuesday amid a firestorm over the firing.

“If you look at the career path of the captain of an aircraft carrier, very few officers have that opportunity,” said Mueri. “There are only 11 aircraft carriers in the entire fleet. He was obviously a stellar leader and a stellar aviator to have that opportunity. the fact that he risked all he worked for all his life for the lives of his sailors means people should listen very closely to what he has to say. The Navy tradition is service before self, ship and sailors before self. He was executing everything we were taught as far as core values.”

She says Crozier should be returned to command of the ship, and argues his dismissal is part of a pattern of political interference in Navy issues by President Trump, who fired former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer in a dispute over discipline of a Navy SEAL who was charged with war crimes. Trump repeatedly intervened in the case.

In a Sunday news conference, Trump said he did not make the decision to dismiss Crozier, and the decision involved the Secretary of Defense and “a lot of people.” He subsequently said Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will decide Crozier’s fate.

“The whole thing was a very unfortunate — the captain should not have written a letter,” Trump said Tuesday. “He didn’t have to be Ernest Hemingway. He made a mistake, but he had a bad day. And I hate seeing bad things happen. The man made a mistake.”


© 2020 The Plain Dealer