In some of the most positive military news of recent memory we get word of preparations being made aboard the USNS Comfort for tomorrow’s departure on a humanitarian mission to South America. The mission was announced by President Bush on March 7th as a plan to continue the success of the vessel’s sister ship USNS Mercy that deployed in 2005 for a humanitarian mission to aid survivors of the massive tsunami in SE Asia. Since March the crew has been busy traveling from their homeport in Baltimore to drydock in Boston and the Navy base in Norfolk.
A Navy Press Release tells us:
“Planning for this mission has incorporated various non-government organizations and government agencies, such as Operation Smile, Project Hope, the Atlanta Rotary Club, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Health and Human Services. This is truly a joint military/civilian operation,” said Capt. Bob Kapcio, Comfort’s mission commander.
Scheduled to remain in the region through September, the Comfort will visit Belize, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago.
While the primary mission of the ship is provide an “afloat, mobile, acute- surgical medical facility to the U.S. military that is flexible and capable of supporting expeditionary warfare” she is no stranger to those in need of comfort. In September 2001 she visited New York Harbor for Operation Noble Eagle and in 2005 she arrived in New Orleans to support relief operations after Hurricane Katrina. She has also served as a training ship for medical professionals and was decorated for service in both Gulf Wars. When fully manned she has the distinction of being the fifth largest trauma centers in the U.S. and, in return for accepting “all comers” is protected by the Geneva Convention.
Like all MSC ships, the Comfort is operated by civilian mariners while the Navy provides medical personnel to take care of the casualties.
National Defense Magazine provides us with some interesting details:
Keeping them ready is no easy task. The Comfort is as long as three football fields and as tall as a 10-story building, almost as big as an aircraft carrier. Within this space, she has 12 operating rooms, 1,000 hospital beds, physical-therapy facilities, a burn intensive-care unit, a frozen blood bank, an infectious-disease ward, even a morgue.
The Comfort is painted a brilliant white, with nine huge red crosses placed all over her hull, rather than the battleship gray of most Navy ships, in order to make it easier for enemy ships to recognize its noncombatant status
The Comfort is one of two hospital ships now serving in the Navy fleet. The other one is the USNS Mercy (T-AH 19), based in San Diego. Both were originally built as supertankers in the 1970s, but were converted for medical use by the National Steel and Shipbuilding Co., of San Diego, and delivered in 1987 to the MSC.
The concept of a hospital ship is not new. The Spanish Armada, in the 16th century, had one. The United States had 12 during World War II. The Navy retired the last two of these at the end of the Vietnam War. But subsequent events—such as the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut and the U.S. invasion of Grenada, both in 1983— suggested the need for a new generation of hospital ships.
The Comfort and Mercy are maintained in reduced-operating status (ROS), at their homeports, on standby to sail within five days of notification. While on ROS, the ships have only small crews. The Comfort, for example, has 58 Navy personnel and 18 civilian mariners on board, explained her civilian captain, Master Mariner Dean Bradford, in a tour of his vessel. Read More…
While bloggers have voiced some legitimate concerns, here & here, I am glad to see some positive news from the pentagon and the opportunity for U.S. mariners to participate in a proactive mission of goodwill. I only wish to have the opportunity to sail on a vessel that has provided comfort to such a large number of people in need.
If your interested in sailing on the USNS Comfort or her sister ship the Mercy you’ll have to get the scuttlebutt on the union contract (comments welcome below). If you’d rather to donate your time to a non-profit to Mercy Ships. Their ship the African Mercy, the world’s largest hospital ship, is set to arrive in Liberia this month.