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Top Pentagon officials defend $243,000 cost of Navy secretary’s trip to Guam

USS Theodore Roosevelt (Jackie Hart/U.S. Navy)

Top Pentagon officials on Thursday defended the $243,000 trip acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly took to visit an aircraft carrier stricken with COVID-19, saying senior military leaders need to have “eyes on” crises as they happen.

Modly made the 35-hour trip to Guam, where the USS Theodore Roosevelt is docked, aboard a Gulfstream 550 outfitted for military use. Medical personnel are tending to more than 400 sailors sickened by the coronavirus.

Modly visited sailors on the ship and made a 15-minute speech, larded with profanity, that criticized Capt. Brett Crozier, the commander Modly fired for sending a letter to Navy officials seeking help for his crew. Modly ridiculed Crozier as too naive and stupid to lead. Modly at first stood by his remarks, then tried to walk them back with an apology.

Because of his possible exposure to coronavirus, he tendered his resignation remotely to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who accepted.

At the Pentagon, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended Modly’s decision to take the trip.

“If you want to know what’s going on in Guam, where I’m standing right now is about the worst place to try to figure that out,” Hyten said. “You actually need to talk to folks in the Pacific. And eyes on is always the best way to figure out what’s going on.”

Asked who authorized Modly’s trip, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist said, “As secretary of the Navy, Tom Modly does have the authority to travel, as needed, to see the mission.”

The C-37B jet costs nearly $7,000 per hour to fly.

A policy enacted in 2018 under then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought to curb costly trips, requiring senior officials, including service secretaries like Modly, to obtain waivers for travel that required the use of multiple aircraft or air crews.

Multiple crews are required on long trips because crews have mandated rest periods. Often, on trips to the Pacific, senior officials will stop in Hawaii or Alaska for events at bases, allowing needed rest for the air crew.

It is unclear whether Modly used multiple crews for the trip to Guam. Norquist and Hyten did not address the question when asked Thursday. Navy and Defense officials, likewise, did not have answers about the details of Modly’s trip or whether the 2018 policy is still in effect.

USA TODAY obtained waiver requests and justifications in 2019 from senior officials after requesting them from the services and the Pentagon.

In 2018, senior officials received seven waivers to use multiple air crews. Among them were the Army secretary and chief of staff, the commandant of the Marine Corps and the top two officers in the Navy. Most of the waivers allowed the senior officials to visit troops in combat zones.

The Army secretary required a waiver for travel to Sydney, where he led the presidential delegation to the Invictus Games from Oct. 17 to 22, 2018, according to the Army. The trip required an additional crew on the outbound trip and on the return. Esper was the Army secretary at the time.

In December 2018, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer flew home from Kuwait on a commercial airliner to avoid the need for multiple crews to fly the Gulfstream aircraft he used on the inbound portion of his trip to the Middle East, according to the Navy.

Esper forced Spencer to resign in November 2019 over his handling of a Navy SEAL whose demotion for a war crimes charge sparked objection from President Donald Trump. Esper lost “trust and confidence” in Spencer for failing to tell Esper of a “private proposal” he made to the White House that would have allowed Navy Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher to keep his rank and SEAL status, according to the Pentagon.

Modly succeeded Spencer.


© 2020 USA Today