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US warship captain orders crew sequestered for 28 days over holidays; Navy reverses decision

Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Jasen Moreno-Garcia/U.S. Navy)

Crew members aboard the San Diego-based USS Rushmore say a quarantine to halt the spread of coronavirus while getting the ship ready for sea has led to a crisis in morale.

Last Saturday, the crew of about 400 was ordered to return to the ship, despite being told they had the Thanksgiving weekend off, several sailors said.

That night they were told they also were going to be sequestered on board the ship — while in port — for 28 days beginning last Monday, to prepare for a 7-day period at sea beginning at the end of December.

The 28 days of isolation meant they would miss spending holidays with their loved ones, several sailors said. The San Diego Union-Tribune is withholding the sailors’ names because they believed they were not authorized to speak.

A 28-day sequester is more than double the Navy’s standard 14-day sequester ahead of a prolonged period at sea.

Navy leaders on Tuesday abandoned the sequester plan after the Union-Tribune asked about it. They said the crew will be permitted to leave the ship, a Navy official with knowledge of the events said.

According to the official, the 28-day sequester was announced by the ship’s captain, but it would not have been approved by fleet commanders in San Diego. The ship’s captain had initiated the sequester before finalizing the scheduling plans with leadership, the official said.

Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Naval Surface Force U.S. Pacific Fleet spokeswoman, said in a statement Wednesday that the crew will be with their families over the holidays.

“Leadership is making every effort to maximize the holiday leave period, so that sailors have a chance to spend time with their families while also ensuring that the ship is able to meet readiness requirements,” Schwegman said.

The 29-year old USS Rushmore is an amphibious dock landing ship. It has spent more than a year in maintenance since returning to San Diego, after an 8-month deployment.

Recently the ship failed two critical assessments that are required before going to sea. Its chief engineer was fired after the first assessment failed in October, sailors on board the ship said.

Before conventionally-powered ships can leave port, the crews must demonstrate they can start the engines in what the Navy calls a “light-off assessment.” The Rushmore failed its first light-off assessment in October and its second on Nov. 25.

According to sailors on board, the ship had a significant outbreak of COVID-19 early in November, resulting in more than 100 crew members being quarantined off the ship. Many of the affected sailors work in the engineering department — the one most involved in the light-off assessments.

Schwegman confirmed there had been a coronavirus “cluster” on the ship but did not say how many sailors were sick or quarantined. The Defense Department also has not been disclosing COVID-19 case numbers by ship since the pandemic’s earliest days.

Being able to get a ship to sea is a key requirement of Navy commanders. The Rushmore’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Robin Marling, is under pressure to not fail a third assessment, the sailors said.

While the on-board sequester is over, the pressure to get back on schedule is still on. The crew’s working hours ahead of the next assessment have been extended; shifts are working from 6:45 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Dec. 18.

If the ship passes, members of the crew will be able to take holiday leave and travel outside the area. She declined to say what would happen if the ship fails.

The Navy has been the most visible military branch straining to maintain operations during the pandemic.

The San Diego-based aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt made worldwide news when it was sidelined for more than two months last spring as about a quarter of its crew contracted the virus. One, Chief Petty Officer Charles Thacker, died of the virus in April.

The incident led to the reassignment of former commander Capt. Brett Croizer by then-Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. Modly later resigned after a speech he gave aboard the ship criticizing Crozier was publicized.

Despite just returning from deployment this summer, the Roosevelt is expected to deploy again within weeks.


(c) 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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