Take it from a birdfarm sailor: Get our squids off the Roosevelt

Last night, Allahpundit wrote about the dire conditions onboard the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt, currently docked in Guam and facing an outbreak of COVID-19. There are an undetermined number of sailors infected onboard and the ship’s captain is sounding the alarm, asking permission to get everyone ashore and into isolation. Speaking as a former sailor who spent five years serving on an aircraft carrier (three of them, actually), I wanted to share some of the realities of shipboard life that make this extraordinary situation one which calls for immediate action without the usual blizzard of red tape the Pentagon tends to generate when a decision is required. But first, a brief update from CNN that makes it sound as if we might be getting a relatively speedy resolution.

Asked about the letter, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told CBS Tuesday, “Well, I have not had a chance to read that letter, read it in detail. Again I’m going to rely on the Navy chain of command to go out there to assess the situation and make sure they provide the captain and the crew all the support they need to get the sailors healthy and the ship back at sea.” …

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told CNN’s John King Tuesday that he was aware of the letter and that the Navy was working to get the sailors off the ship.

“I heard about the letter from Capt. Crozier this morning, I know that our command organization has been aware of this for about 24 hours and we have been working actually the last seven days to move those sailors off the ship and get them into accommodations in Guam.

The concerns being expressed further up the chain of command would be completely understandable in more normal times. Effectively emptying an aircraft carrier of her entire crew in the middle of a WestPac deployment is unheard of and removes one of the key pieces in our naval portfolio from the field of play. But these are not ordinary times and the sailors onboard the Roosevelt are in more danger than pretty much anyone reading this who isn’t working in a New York City ICU without a facemask.

I served four Pacific deployments on the USS Constellation in the 70s and 80s, with additional TAD assignments to both the Kittyhawk and the Ranger. Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time living in the cramped, hectic and frequently dangerous conditions on a birdfarm. And while Allahpundit brought up some of the crowding issues, that really doesn’t paint a full picture of what’s going on, particularly in two specific aspects of shipboard life.

While carriers are huge – and they have to be given their mission – the inner spaces are frequently as cramped as any you’ll find anywhere other than on a submarine. (The bubbleheads have it even worse.) The corridors are cramped and you can rarely pass anyone going in the other direction without physically brushing up against them. The berthing quarters for the enlisted sailors are mostly long, narrow rooms with rows of racks (bunks) stacked three high and only a couple of feet apart. The only large, wide-open space inside the hull is the hanger bay, but that’s generally a beehive of potentially dangerous activity restricted to the airedales who tend to the jets and choppers.

The ladders that you need to traverse to go up or down between decks are narrow and steep, requiring you to grab on to the handrails to navigate them. Hatches and doorways almost always need to be secured while underway, so you’re constantly grabbing the various knobs and handles to open them and dog them down after passing through. Trying to keep all of those surfaces sterilized to the level required to combat the virus would be simply impossible. The air is recirculated through the interior constantly without any sort of micro-filtering taking place. Oh, and did I mention that there are literally more than four thousand souls onboard when the air wings are present?

The other factor to consider is the lack of medical facilities. Yes, there is a sickbay and the doctors and medical corpsmen are skilled professionals who know how to care for the health of the sailors. But first of all, the number of actual hospital beds is ridiculously low for a population of that size. We talking less than fifty, at least back in my day. And they are set up to handle accidents, physical injuries and the occasional case of STDs. The carrier’s sickbay is in no way, shape or form designed to deal with an epidemic of respiratory illnesses requiring lengthy periods of bed rest and care.

Asking the doctors onboard the Roosevelt to handle this outbreak with the resources they have available on the ship would essentially be the equivalent of issuing a death sentence for a potentially sizable portion of the crew. It’s going to be hard enough to find enough beds for all of the infected once they go ashore in Guam. (Yes, I’ve been there at least half a dozen times. Beautiful place, but the facilities are not expansive.) The sailors need to be separated and put somewhere where they can keep plenty of distance between them so those who are not yet infected can stay that way and those who’ve already contracted COVID-19 can have a chance at getting the best care possible. And it needs to be happening right now.

Again, I realize that asking the Pentagon to empty an aircraft carrier that’s deployed near a tense part of the world is beyond anything they’re used to dealing with. The good news is that the vast majority of the sailors are young or middle-aged and in generally better health than most of the population. That means that the majority of them will survive the virus if they get infected, provided they have a reasonable level of care available. But not all of them will. And the cost of doing nothing is too great to delay a decision in this matter.