USNS Comfort Continues Humanitarian Mission

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2007 - Midway through its humanitarian assistance deployment to Latin America, the hospital ship USNS Comfort has met with success and a welcoming attitude as it provides medical and humanitarian assistance to countries in the region, the ship's commanders reported yesterday.

The Comfort recently arrived in Peru, the sixth country it has visited on a three-month deployment to Latin America and the Caribbean. The ship has so far treated patients in Belize, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

"We expect to be as busy here as we've been everywhere else," Navy Capt. Robert Kapcio, the Comfort's commodore, or mission commander, told Pentagon reporters. "As we've gone, we've gotten more organized ourselves; we're much adapted to the different challenges we face; and we're doing very well as far as seeing numbers of patients."

The ship averages 780 people on board, about 100 of whom are civilians, Kapcio said. The remainder of the staff is from the U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard, U.S. Public Health Service, and Canadian government forces. Civilians from U.S. Military Sealift Command run the ship, and two nongovernmental organizations are partnered with the military onboard.

"This is a truly joint civil-military effort here," Kapcio said. "Just within the military, we have over 200 different commands on the ship."

Although each port offers different challenges, the staff from the Comfort offers the same basic medical services everywhere, said Navy Capt. Bruce R. Boynton, commander of the Comfort. Generally, the doctors and nurses travel by helicopter and boat to the shore each day and set up sites to provide adult and pediatric primary care, dental care, optometry, immunizations and laboratory work. Those who need surgery are taken back to the Comfort, where surgeries are performed and patients recover.

Some of the most touching procedures are club foot and cataract repairs, which transform the lives of children who were previously disabled or shunned, Kapcio said. Another procedure that has a huge impact is cleft lip repair that Operation Smile, one of the nongovernmental agencies, performs, Boynton said.

"When you see the look on the mother's face, it's like having her child reborn right there in front of her," he said. "It's something that touches all of our hearts."

At every stop the ship has made, the staff has been welcomed with open arms by the local population, Kapcio said. In most areas, the Comfort's arrival has been advertised for months, and people have traveled from miles around to be seen by the doctors, he said.

"Most of the places we've been, it's been truly open arms," Kapcio said. "Our doctors got off the buses in Guatemala, and the people just started cheering. It's been extremely heartwarming for all of us that have been involved with this."

This deployment offers great training for many of the U.S. military personnel on the ship, Kapcio said, because many only have experience in a hospital. This gives the doctors and nurses a chance to experience a humanitarian mission and practice a different type of medicine than they're used to, he said. He noted that although the staff works long hours, they maintain a good attitude and are always eager to go back the next day.

"They know they're making a difference; they love making a difference," he said. "A lot of people volunteered to come on this mission and give up their summer vacations and everything else to come on this deployment. It's really what's made this mission special."

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