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He tried to fix the Navy

Thomas Modly’s new book, "Vectors," gives the untold context to what was a national controversy in 2020.

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Most of you probably don’t recognize the name — the Hon. Thomas B. Modly. 

In early 2020, he was the national media’s villain. But in truth, Modly, now a Siesta Key resident, is an unsung American hero.

If you don’t remember Modly’s name, you most likely remember the story in the early stages of the COVID pandemic. 

It was late March 2020, and news spread nationally and worldwide as fast as COVID spreads that it was quickly infecting the crew of 4,500 sailors aboard the USS Teddy Roosevelt in the Pacific.

Capt. Brett Crozier, commander of the ship, ignited the news with “a signal flare” email that he sent over an unsecure network to a small group of Naval aviators, bypassing his chain of command. The email, picked up by and published in the San Francisco Chronicle, was instantly interpreted around the world as a Code Blue cry for help from one of our nation’s most powerful military assets.

In the days that followed, as the firestorm continue to spread all the way to Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump, Modly, then acting secretary of the Navy, flew to Guam and relieved Crozier of his duty for violating the Navy chain of command. The story exploded, as if a bomb blew a hole in the side of the ship.

In the aftermath, the national media characterized Crozier as the hero trying to save his crew from the ravages of COVID. Modly became the villain, a Trump political appointee who unfairly threw the captain overboard. Social media posts called him a traitor, and Joe Biden implied Modly’s action was “criminal.”

Predictably, Trump was not happy and wanted to intervene. 

But at 4 p.m. April 7, 2020, a week after Crozier’s departure from the ship, with the firestorm still red hot, Modly resigned. He had served as acting secretary for 19 weeks.

For three years now, while Americans’ memories of this incident have faded, the record still stands online: Modly was the villain.

That should no longer be the case. Earlier this month, Modly told his story with the release of his book, “Vectors: Heroes, Villains & Heartbreak on the Bridge of the U.S. Navy,” a No. 1 best-seller on Amazon.

Thomas Modly
Courtesy photo

Modly gives his version of what happened with Capt. Crozier and the Teddy Roosevelt. And he does so in an even-tone voice, with straightforward, believable and honest storytelling. He provides what never came out — rich context and details that explain the how and why the incident occurred. 

Maybe some will say what we’re about to say is to be expected. After all, the book is Modly’s version. But when you read “Vectors,” you cannot come to any other conclusion than Modly’s dismissal of Crozier was the right thing to do. 

In fact, Crozier said so himself. On page 457, Modly recalls:

“As I began to discuss my reasons (for dismissing Crozier), he abruptly interrupted me and said, ‘Sir, you don’t have to say anything more. I respect you as secretary. I put you in a difficult position. If I had been in your shoes, I would have relieved me too … but I did it for the crew.’”

“Vectors” is vindication. It’s what good people in the news business often say and know: There are always at least two sides to every story, and we should not rush to judgment (almost an impossibility today in this tidal-wave of instant, nonfact-checked information). Context matters, and Modly provides plenty of it with recollections of events and details that show and reveal much about the Navy, the Pentagon and the ugly politics of Washington, D.C. 

 “Vectors” is so much more than vindication for Modly and so much more than his story of Crozier and the “TR.”

Altogether, “Vectors” is Modly’s memoir — of his service in the Trump years, from 2017 to early 2020 as the undersecretary of the Navy (the Navy’s COO) and ultimately, the acting secretary of the Navy (the Navy’s interim CEO).

It’s a short period for a memoir. But in the structure of the book — a chronological journey, this comes through: Thomas B. Modly is the kind of person this country needs in our military, the Pentagon and Congress. He’s exceptional in his deep love of country and patriotism, and those characteristics repeatedly surface throughout the book. One moving section was his swearing in as undersecretary at the Naval Academy and his speech. Modly describes his time as a midshipman as “a life-defining experience.”

“For me, the swearing-in ceremony was surreal,” he writes. “In all the years I’d spent walking through and past Memorial Hall as a midshipman, I’d never imagined that I would be there 30-plus years later being sworn in as the Navy’s undersecretary. It just wasn’t something that I thought would ever happen, nor was it a position to which I had realistically aspired … I wanted to make a statement that I wasn’t there for the pomp and circumstance but rather to have an impact on the future of the Navy and Marine Corps.”

He tried mightily to make that impact. He wasn’t in it for the political glory like so many others. As you read, Modly demonstrated a seriousness and intelligence toward his job that we wish everyone in Washington and the Pentagon would emulate. His grasp of how to be an effective leader; of the world as it relates to the nation’s security and of what needed to be changed and how to change an extraordinarily complex organization is, well, astonishing.

For 400 pages, 80% of the book, Modly chronicles in engaging storytelling his personal mission as undersecretary and acting secretary to change the Navy’s culture — from one of intransigence and resistance to that of agility and accountability. Just imagine the near impossible task of trying to change the culture of a business with an annual budget of $250 billion and 520,000 employees and no motive to make a profit.

Colleagues told him in an oft-repeated refrain: “Tom, you can’t fix government.”

You can see through Modly’s experiences how that is 99% true. As Modly chronicles his short terms as undersecretary and acting secretary, he opens wide the hull to the inner workings of the Navy, the Pentagon and Washington, D.C. politics. And it’s shocking.

Shocking at how dysfunctional everything is there and how resistant to change the entire apparatus is. He may not have intended it, but his stories of what he encountered leave you with the impression that the Department of Navy has been an operational and business disaster, and if the United States finds itself at war with any of our foreign adversaries, we are not the superpower we think we are. Not even close.

Worse, our congressional politicians are oblivious, egregiously negligent and not at all inclined to do anything about it.

The structure of the book reflects Modly’s personality of thoughtfulness, his vast knowledge of so many subjects and impressive leadership style.

 The first four chapters set up the narrative, filling in the reader on Modly’s family and background and his appointment as undersecretary. Modly is of modest middle-class means, the son of Eastern European immigrants who escaped the Nazis in World War II, settled in Cleveland and lived ordinary, productive lives, always grateful for the freedoms afforded to them in America. They instilled in him a love of country that flows through the book and his life.

The background chapters culminate in Chapter 5, with the resignations in 2019 of former Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer. Both ran aground with Trump. 

With those resignations, Modly’s story begins as undersecretary of the Navy for the next 19 weeks. 

He approached the job as he does everything — with deep thought and reflection. He wrote a letter to Trump, asking him to consider Modly as the permanent secretary, only to be told by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper: “Tom, the president doesn’t read.”

He researched the average time acting secretaries of the Navy lasted in their jobs — 110 days. He vowed that even though he was “acting” secretary, he was not going to be an actor or a pretender. He was going to take action.

Modly’s first step was to do what he does with everything: He made lists. He made 11 lists of priorities by category, each with 10 objectives he wanted to accomplish — 110 objectives in 110 days.

“I knew it would be physically impossible to meet all 110 objectives,” he writes. “But I also knew each one was important.”

Modly also decided to do something a Navy secretary had never done — send out a weekly communication to every active-duty and reserve Sailor and Marine and all Navy civilian employees.

These weekly memos — sent via an unclassified email — were intended to give everyone insights and an understanding of what was on Modly’s mind. Each week’s message varied — he would reflect on the tragedies of losing Sailors in shootings at Pearl Harbor and Pensacola; remind everyone of his priorities and objectives and the importance of their jobs; he would inspire them with stories of Naval and Marine heroes; and he would almost always end his messages: “Go Navy, and as always, beat Army!

Modly called these weekly emails “Vectors.” 

“I thought about calling them ‘Bearings,’” he writes, “but then realized that a bearing is just something that helps you figure out where you are, not where you need to go or how fast. That is what a vector does. It consists of direction and magnitude. Vector was the perfect name.”

Modly sent out 19 weekly Vectors, one for each week he served as “acting.” The Vectors became the frame for the book. Modly corresponded the Vectors with his weekly calendar, enabling him to refresh his mind on the events and chronology of the weeks and reconstruct what became a captivating narrative of the hectic life of the secretary of the Navy. 

Modly also includes at the end of each chapter a discussion of “Heroes” and “Villains.” The heroes were “people who were unsung, people who do things behind the scenes and are never the ones you ever hear about too much.” The Villains are not people. Reflective of his character, Modly said he did not want to disparage any individuals — although readers can figure out who the villains are. 

Instead, Modly’s villains are obstacles that get in the way of and often prevent success — time, complacency, arrogance, pride, routines, “the sexy stuff,” cynicism. All of these and more abound inside the huge Navy and Pentagon bureaucracy.

As a bonus, Modly also devised clever titles for the chapters — each taken from lyrics of his favorite songs. After he outlined the entire book, he says: “I literally sat down one night, like midnight, and went through my catalog of music and said, “I love this song. I love the lyrics in this. This totally fits. And that’s how I came up with that.”

When he told his grown children the lyrics were intended to make the book appeal to a younger generation, they said: “Dad, these songs are like 30 years old.”

Nevertheless, the lyrics, the Vectors, the Heroes & Villains all make “Vectors” an engaging book on what could be a boring subject: the inner workings of the Pentagon’s bureaucracy and politics.

Modly wrote the last half of the book at the Selby Library in downtown Sarasota, spending two to four hours in the morning in a cubicle on the second floor. 

“I could generally crank out a chapter fully written,” he told us. “And then I thought about the next chapter, so that when I came back the next day or two days later, I could roll right into that next chapter. I did that 20 times, something like that.”

He finished the book a year ago. It took him a year to get it published. 

“Vectors” is a book for every American who has an interest in our security against foreign adversaries. It should shock all of us into demanding more from our politicians in D.C.

“Vectors” especially should be a must-read for everyone in the Navy, Marines, Pentagon and Congress. They need to see themselves for what they are and aren’t. What’s more, Modly’s stories of what he did and why are great lessons in leadership — for the military and private sector. 

And you can bet Modly’s book will become a case study of leadership in the curricula for all future Navy and Marine officers. It should.

Thomas B. Modly has been an extraordinary public servant for American citizens and taxpayers — an American hero. And he has performed a great public service with his writing of “Vectors.”

When describing what he faced with Capt. Crozier and the Teddy Roosevelt, Modly writes that relieving Crozier of duty was the most difficult decision of his life. 

Two years ago, when we first interviewed Modly, we asked if he still thought about the “TR.” 

“I think about it every day,” he said.

Last week, we asked again: “Oh, sure. I will think about it the rest of my life, I’m sure. I’m not obsessing over it. I’m not upset about it. It’s part of my story now. 

“I think about it all the time.”

Once you read the book and have all of the context, you should surely conclude: He made the right decision.  



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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