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Hospital Ship Prepares for Humanitarian Assistance Mission

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

BALTIMORE, March 5, 2009 – Last-minute preparations are under way aboard USNS Comfort here as it prepares to leave early next month for a four-month humanitarian assistance mission through Latin America and the Caribbean.

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Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Olivero gives reporters a tour March 4, 2009, through one of USNS Comfort’s 12 operating rooms that will be used during the upcoming Continuing Promise 2009 mission. The hospital ship is docked at its home port in Baltimore. DoD photo by Donna Miles
  

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The hulking hospital ship -- three football fields long and one wide -- will deliver medical, dental, veterinary and engineering assistance in support of Continuing Promise 2009.

The mission, U.S. Southern Command’s fourth in as many years, will include visits to Antigua and Barbuda, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Panama.

While providing critically needed assistance that reaffirms U.S. commitment to the region, Continuing Promise will provide a tremendous training opportunity for the way the United States and its partners would respond to a real-life disaster, explained Navy Capt. Robert G. Lineberry Jr., Comfort’s commodore.

The crew will include about 650 medical professionals from the Navy, Army, Air Force and U.S. Public Health Service, nine nongovernmental organizations and 13 international partners, Lineberry told reporters who toured the ship yesterday. In addition to countries to be visited, Canada, France, Chile, Spain and the Netherlands will deploy medical professionals to support the mission.

Project Hope, one of the NGOs to participate, plans to bring more than 100 medical and support professionals who will donate their time, and also donated equipment and supplies they will leave behind at each stop along their way. This mission is great for Project Hope,” said Rand Walton, who has participated in a dozen U.S.-Navy sponsored humanitarian missions. “The Navy gives us the opportunity to get to places in the world we couldn’t get to as easily,” he said. “And the Comfort is a great platform for us that helps us fulfill our mission.”

During the mission, a team of 21 Seabees will conduct engineering missions ashore alongside host-nation engineers.

“This mission is an excellent opportunity to bring these partners together” so they can train to launch the rapid response required during a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster, Lineberry said. “Given the nature of natural disasters, we must always be ready.”

That readiness got put to the test during last year’s Continuing Promise mission, conducted by USS Boxer, then USS Kearsarge. Kearsarge was bound for a scheduled humanitarian and civil assistance mission in Colombia in September when it got diverted to Haiti to relieve suffering and loss of life in the wake of Hurricane Ike and several other deadly tropical storms.

Helicopters crews and ground support personnel aboard the amphibious ship delivered and distributed critically needed food and relief supplies.

“The circumstances that bring us here are unfortunate, but it is fortunate we are here,” Navy Capt. Fernandez "Frank" Ponds, mission commander for Continuing Promise 2008, said after witnessing the devastation. “The unique capabilities that Kearsarge brings with it will ensure that help and aid reaches people quickly.”

This year, USNS Comfort will bring immense medical capabilities to the Continuing Promise mission. The 250-bed floating hospital will be equipped and staffed to provide just about any kind of medical treatment except open-heart surgery or organ transplants, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Olivero, who oversees its 12 operating rooms.

Dental procedures and hysterectomies ranked among the most common care provided during Comfort’s last Continuing Promise mission, in 2007, he said. But the crew also provided “thousands and thousands of eyeglasses” to those who needed them, and in one particularly memorable surgery, operated on a child blinded by congenital cataracts.

“I can see Mom! I can see!” the child exclaimed in Comfort’s recovery room after seeing his mother for the first time. “I’ll never forget it,” Olivero said.

“This ship has amazing capabilities,” Navy Cmdr. Mark Marino, who commands Comfort’s nursing staff, said. “We’re really running a state-of-the-art operation here.”

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Felecia Wilson pointed to the ship’s diagnostics testing lab as an example. “It’s just as capable as the one at Johns Hopkins [Hospital], down the street,” she said.

Down the hallway, Navy Chief Petty Officer Joseph Bone, Comfort’s pharmacy technician, was taking stock of the prescription drugs already arriving for the upcoming mission. He recalled the huge workload as he filled 122,000 prescriptions during Continuing Promise 2009.

As Comfort’s crew brings care and services to the countries they visit, they take something deeply personal away from the experience, said Navy Capt. Jim Ware, who oversees the ship’s medical operations.

“Folks come back with a great sense of accomplishment,” he said. “It’s a very meaningful experience for them.”

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Chad Singer, a specialist in Comfort’s intensive care unit, recalled the gratification of bringing critically needed care to people who need it.

“Surgeries that seem so simple in the United States mean so much to the people we visit who need them,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how much it alters their lives for the better.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageChief Joseph Bone, USNS Comfort’s pharmacy technician, takes stock of the prescription drugs already arriving for the upcoming Continuing Promise 2009 mission March 4, 2009. Bone helped fill 122,000 prescriptions during Continuing Promise 2007. DoD photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageUSNS Comfort, one of two hospital ships in the Military Sealift Command inventory, is docked at its home port in Baltimore as preparations continue for a four-month humanitarian assistance mission in the Caribbean and Latin America . DoD photo by Donna Miles   
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