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Humanitarian Efforts Aid Diplomacy, Hospital Ship Commander Says

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

SAN DIEGO, Nov. 23, 2008 – The Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy helped care for more than 90,000 patients and helped spread diplomacy throughout the U.S. Pacific Command during a four-month stint in the region this summer, the ship’s commanding officer said Nov. 21.

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Navy Capt. Jim Rice, commander of the USNS Mercy, talks with alumni of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a Defense Department community outreach program, Nov. 21, 2008. The group toured the ship, which was docked at its home port in San Diego. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III

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“This is an opportunity for America to put our best foot forward and an opportunity for citizens to be proud to be Americans because of what we’re doing for these nations,” Navy Capt. James P. Rice said. “All of this is to make it a better world; it’s really as simple as that.”

Rice spoke to a handful of alumni of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a Defense Department community outreach program, from the ship, which is now docked at its home port here.

The ship concluded its part of the Pacific Partnership 2008 mission in September after it provided medical, dental and engineering support to thousands in the Western Pacific countries of the Philippines, Vietnam, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea and Micronesia. More than 75,000 medical patients were treated, more than 14,000 dental patients were seen and more than 1,300 surgeries were conducted. The ship provided an estimated $20 million in health care, Rice said.

Twenty-six engineering projects were completed, ranging from of a waste water treatment facility in the Philippines to the construction of a community center in Papua New Guinea.

The ship is now docked here and running with minimal staff, but is on “Alert 5” status, ready to get underway in five days to provide combat trauma support. It also can be tasked to help with humanitarian missions or disaster relief here and abroad if needed, Rice said.

A converted oil tanker, the USNS Mercy was commissioned in November 1986. Its first humanitarian mission was to the Philippines in 1987. It was activated in support of Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Rice told the group that Navy officials began to understand the strategic importance of providing humanitarian relief after the tsunami that struck in the Indian Ocean in 2004. The Mercy was activated then to aid relief efforts there.

The Mercy deployed again in 2006 for five months to Southeast Asia, and “the rest is history,” Rice said.

The ship provides a full spectrum of medicine, limited only by the specialists officials can get on board, Rice said. It works in partnership with other nations, host nations and nongovernmental agencies to provide care.

“Our partners bring capabilities to us that expand our ability to provide care,” Rice said.

This past mission’s partner nations included medical staff from Australia, Canada, Chile, India, Indonesia, Singapore, New Zealand, Japan and the Republic of Korea.

The Mercy team was also joined by volunteers from NGOs such as Operation Smile, Project Hope, University of California Pre-dental Society, East Meets West and International Relief Teams.

In addition to direct medical care, the ship also provides capacity building projects such as preventative medicine and environmental health in projects that include water sanitation, engineering and veterinarian assistance.

Officials have also begun to look at “strategic capacity building,” Rice said, taking on projects that will affect the host nation over a longer term, such as 10 or 20 years later.

“We’re always going to provide direct care. But what are we going to do to help develop that host nation?” Rice said.

The recently concluded Pacific Partnership mission included helping medical officials in Timor-Leste develop a five-year budget for their hospital and prioritize the purchase of equipment and capabilities to develop their national hospital.

In Papua New Guinea, a country with only 12 dentists, the medical staff sponsored a four-day dental symposium and donated the resources to teach dentists and 25 dental students and technicians to help to build the country’s dental capabilities.

The missions help to develop relationships and strengthen friendships between host nations and the United States and its partner nations, Rice said. The visits also help to prepare the participating countries for providing disaster relief assistance should the need arise.

“It is better to practice working together when it is calm than when all craziness is breaking loose,” Rice said.

The U.S. humanitarian mission has evolved, Rice said, from acting as a “benevolent” country coming to the host nation’s aid to helping to propel the host nation forward.

“We really didn’t quite get it yet,” he said of operations before that adjustment in focus. “It’s not about us. It’s about them.”

Now, officials work to build the country and make it stronger without “stepping on toes,” he said.

“This isn’t a military mission. It is purely a humanitarian mission,” Rice said. But, he added, such missions can contribute to stability. “If a country is stable, it is less likely to allow a terrorist organization to take root,” he said. “It has a big benefit for our overarching national strategic objectives.”

The Mercy is one of two Navy hospital ships. Its sister ship, the USNS Comfort, is based out of Baltimore. The Mercy is expected to deploy again in 2010.

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Related Sites:
USNS Mercy
Joint Civilian Orientation Conference

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy Capt. Jim Rice, commander of the USNS Mercy, shows alumni of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference the ship’s hospital wards Nov. 21, 2008. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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