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Navy Hospital Ship Provides Comfort to Injured Enemy POWs

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 11, 2003 – Plying the Arabian Sea, she's an oasis of medical care and hope for sick or wounded U.S. and coalition troops, Iraqi civilians and enemy prisoners of war.

The USNS Comfort is a U.S. Navy hospital ship outfitted to handle 1,000 patients. The ship's mission in Operation Iraqi Freedom is twofold, said Capt. Charles Blankenship, the commander of the Comfort's medical treatment facility, today during a Pentagon news satellite-teleconference: to provide combat medical support and humanitarian, disaster relief assistance.

The hospital ship's staff sees U.S. and coalition "patients who need to be [medically] stabilized who have fairly serious injuries," Blankenship, a general surgeon, explained, noting the staff is "also taking care of Iraqi prisoners of war and civilians."

The captain said his staff operates under the Geneva Conventions, which, among other things, specify that POWs must receive appropriate medical treatment.

Consequently, U.S., coalition, Iraqi civilian and EPW patients "receive the same standard of care," Blankenship pointed out. In fact, he noted the first few casualties treated aboard ship were Iraqi prisoners of war.

The hospital ship has admitted 300 patients since March 20, Blankenship remarked. Today, about 200 patients remain aboard, he noted, including about 120 EPWs and 30 Iraqi civilians.

Blankenship noted the Comfort is staffed and equipped to provide sophisticated medical care similar to that found at a land-based facility such as National Naval Medical Center Bethesda, Md.

The captain said he was impressed with the quality of medical treatment performed by medics in the field and at aid stations and field hospitals before patients arrived aboard the hospital ship.

Shipboard treatments have ranged from a few minutes to wash out and bind straightforward wounds to an 11-hour spinal surgery on a coalition member, noted Cmdr. Ralph Jones, the Comfort's chief surgeon.

The ship's medical staff has currently performed 274 surgical procedures, Jones pointed out, noting that 88 percent of these cases involved treating combat wounds. Twelve percent of surgical cases, he added, were non- combatant injury related.

Each surgery represents treatment performed on one patient, the commander explained, noting that other same-patient treatments were often administered concurrently or sequentially.

Sixty-one percent of the Comfort's surgical caseload thus far has been administered to EPWs, Jones noted. About 28 percent of the caseload went to U.S. and coalition troops, and 11 percent to Iraqi civilians.

All patients aboard the Comfort require "nourishment, pain medication and, in most cases, antibiotics," noted Cmdr. Tommy Stewart, the ship's chief nurse.

Another key issue: staff safety involved in treating enemy prisoners of war, Stewart remarked, noting that two masters of arms watch over each EPW medical ward. Also, he continued, all sharp objects and other potential weapons are put out of prisoners' reach.

Stewart emphasized that the medical care provided to EPWs aboard the Comfort "is no different than that provided to any other sick or injured individual."

U.S. Navy Lt. Ramzy Azar, an environmental health officer who speaks Lebanese-dialect Arabic, is one of four translators aboard ship.

"We translate around the clock as needed" for the Iraqi civilian and EPW patients and the ship's staff, Azar noted.

The Iraqi people, Azar remarked, have endured many hardships over the years under dictator Saddam Hussein, noting that most Iraq's citizens "do not have health care and certainly cannot afford it."

Iraqi civilians and EPWs aboard the Comfort are getting the best medical care in the world, Azar pointed out, and many have displayed their thanks to the ship's staff.

"An EPW had come on board, and he was convinced that we were going to hurt him," the lieutenant recalled.

"As I tried to reassure him that we were here to help him, he just broke down and cried" in gratitude, Azar concluded.

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