MSC PAO 01-45
September 18, 2001
For more information, contact:
Marge Holtz or Bridget Morris
202-685-5055 or 202-494-6524
Aboard USNS Comfort in NYC
By JO2 Ellen Maurer
What started out as a mission to save lives, ended up being a call to care for and comfort a city in need.
At 3 p.m. on Sept. 12, USNS Comfort left its layberth in Baltimore, Md., with about 150 sailors from the National Naval Medical Center and other commands, along with 61 civil service mariners, and headed for New York City. At the time, Comfort's mission was to provide medical assistance to the victims of Tuesday's terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Within 24 hours, though, everything changed.
By the time the ship reached Naval Weapons Station Earle, N.J., on Friday and loaded about 500 more sailors, Comfort received orders to change missions. She would now provide logistical and support services to fire fighters and emergency personnel working in the disaster recovery effort.
"Things are changing so rapidly in this operation," explained Military Treatment Facility commanding officer Capt. Charles Blankenship, MC, USN, to the crew as he told them about the change in missions during a captain's call on board the ship. "We just have to be prepared and realize that what we do today may not be what we are doing tomorrow."
For many of the NNMC sailors, the change in missions meant turning around and going back home. In a little more than an hour, nearly 450 medical and support personnel had packed, disembarked and boarded buses, destined to return to their normal duty stations, including Bethesda and other Navy hospitals and clinics along the East Coast. The nearly 150 critical core personnel who remained on board were left with the task of converting the hospital ship from a major medical and surgical facility to a logistics support facility, ready to care for possibly thousands of disaster relief workers.
For the crew remaining on board Comfort, the next week was a lesson in readiness, flexibility and dedication. Every day, hundreds of police officers, firemen and government workers passed through the ship's quarterdeck, looking for a hot shower, a real meal and a place to sleep.
"The people on this ship are amazing," said New York City Police Officer Kevin O'Keeffe, who came on board the ship with other police officers to get a hot breakfast and some coffee. "When we first came on board someone escorted us to the galley. It was like they rolled the red carpet out for us. As cops, we don't get treated like this unless it is Thanksgiving or Christmas, and we are at home," said O'Keeffe. "We want to say thank you to everyone on the ship and in the military."
The casualty receiving area on board the ship that would normally be used to give initial medical care to patients was converted to a check-in location for the relief workers. The hospital beds are now covered with snacks, drinks and other donated supplies for the relief workers checking aboard. Lining the walls are tee shirts, donated from all over the country, with handwritten messages of thanks to the workers for their efforts.
There are cards, too.
One, obviously written by a child, reads:
Thank you for trying to find people. If you can, can you please find my aunt? Her name is Donna Clarke.
Lt. Cmdr. Steve Gottlieb, USN, who is Director of Administrations on Comfort and Deputy Head of the Patient Administration Service Line at NNMC, admitted that he couldn't help but read that particular card several times a day.
"I'm drawn to it. I mean, here is this little girl, basically begging for someone to find her aunt. It's the purity in her simple words - her love for her family member who is probably not even alive - it's heartbreaking," said Gottlieb.
Although most of the USNS Comfort crew has not been permitted to leave the pier, some small groups have been down to the center of the disaster site. Cmdr. Ralph Jones, MC, USN, Director of Surgical Services on board Comfort and an NNMC surgical oncologist, led an advance group of five crewmembers down to what most are referring to as "ground zero" to visually assess the damage. Jones said the scene was unimaginable.
"There's paper everywhere, all dins of disruption," said Jones. "People are sleeping on debris. Rescue workers standing up, leaning against street posts, trying to get some shuteye. When we got there, people started clapping, telling us 'thanks' for coming.
"Then, all of a sudden, I had about 40 or 50 firefighters gathered around me, crying," Jones added. "They needed help, a break, but they were afraid that if they left the scene, they wouldn't be able to come back."
Jones realized that just how important the new mission was for Comfort and its crew. The ship provides a place for the disaster relief workers to get away for a few hours. The sailors aboard provide smiles to lift their morale and ears to listen to their stories.
It's true that some of the corpsmen aboard feel disappointed that they won't be able to lend more medical assistance, but most realize the value of their current role. Ensign Marge Faulkner, MSC, USN, who is a dietician at NNMC and a supply officer aboard Comfort, said, "Doctors are now doing things they normally don't do. Nurses are out there meeting and greeting. Everyone is just trying to help out in whatever way they can."
Teamwork has been a major part of accomplishing the mission. When a steam line broke that temporarily left the ship without hot water for several hours one day, the civilian mariners on board worked quickly to make repairs so that rescue workers would get the hot shower for which they came.
When a crane broke, that would normally be used to bring supplies onto the ship, sailors formed a human chain that went form the pier all the way to the stock rooms, and passed boxes, one by one, for hours to load all the shipments.
SH3 Oleg Gutkin, USN, a 24-year-old NNMC sailor who usually works in the hospital's warehouse, said he could see his hometown of Brooklyn from the deck of the ship as it pulled into port. He admitted that the entire crew seems pretty tired, but the fact that they know they're making a difference keeps them going.
"The relief workers really appreciate what we're doing for them here," said Gutkin. "They talk to us and tell us how much we're helping. We can tell that just by looking at the expressions on their faces when they're here. They know we care."
Caring, according to all the crewmembers on Comfort, is one of the most important aspects in this entire tragedy. In many ways, they've said, their mission hasn't really ever changed. For the sailors and the civilian mariners on board the ship, bring comfort to a city in need is really all their mission was ever about.