By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In an extraordinary reversal, the U.S. Navy has recommended reinstating the fired captain of the coronavirus-hit aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, whose crew hailed him as a hero willing to risk his job to safeguard his sailors, officials said on Friday.

The Navy’s top leaders made the recommendation to reinstate Captain Brett Crozier on Friday to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, just three weeks after Crozier was relieved of command after the leak of his letter calling on the Navy for stronger measures, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.

The officials said Esper was taking time to consider the recommendation.

Earlier on Friday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Esper was leaning toward supporting the Navy’s conclusions following its internal investigation into the incident with the Roosevelt.

“He is going into this with an open mind and he is generally inclined to support Navy leadership in their decisions,” Hoffman told a news briefing.

Sources say Crozier is one of the 856 sailors from the Roosevelt’s 4,800-member crew who have tested positive for the coronavirus, effectively taking one of the Navy’s most powerful ships out of operation.

Crozier was fired about three weeks ago by the Navy’s top civilian, then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, against the recommendations of uniformed leaders, who suggested he wait for an investigation into the letter’s leak.

Modly’s decision to fire Crozier backfired badly, as members of the crew hailed their captain as a hero in an emotional sendoff captured on video that went viral on social media.

Embarrassed, Modly then compounded his problems by flying out to the carrier to ridicule Crozier over the leak and question his character in a speech to the Roosevelt’s crew, which also leaked to the media. Modly then resigned.

The disclosure of the Navy’s recommendation, which was first reported by the New York Times, came just hours after the Pentagon announced that at least 18 sailors aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer – the Kidd – had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

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It was another blow to the military as it faces fallout over its handling of the Roosevelt, raising additional questions about whether the safeguards in place to protect U.S. troops are sufficient.

The cases have highlighted the U.S. military’s struggle to meet increasingly competing priorities: maintaining readiness for conflict and safeguarding servicemembers as the virus spreads globally.

In the latest case, the outbreak aboard the Kidd took place while it was on a counter-narcotics mission in the Caribbean. A sailor who had become sick was medically evacuated off the ship and later tested positive for the virus.

That prompted further testing of the crew that led to the discovery of additional positive cases.

A specialized medical team has been sent to the ship to carry out contact tracing and more onsite testing, it added.

But only so much can be done while the ship is at sea, so the Navy is halting the mission and bringing it back to port.

The crisis being triggered by the coronavirus is the biggest facing Navy leadership since two crashes in the Asia Pacific region in 2017 that killed 17 sailors.

Those incidents raised questions about Navy training and the pace of operations, prompting a congressional hearing and the removal of a number of officers.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Sandra Maler and Jonathan Oatis)

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