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Military Sealift Command Public Affairs
June 27, 2016

Preparing the Crew to Deliver Global Comfort
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By Bill Mesta, Military Sealift Command Public Affairs

NORFOLK (NNS) -- U.S. Navy Sailors and civil service mariners (CIVMARs) attached to USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) conducted a Comfort Exercise (COMFEX) at Naval Station Norfolk, June 20-24.

COMFEX is a quarterly training exercise designed to keep Comfort's crew prepared to rapidly respond to an emergency.

"The COMFEX is a quarterly training regimen designed to keep the medical personnel, support staff and CIVMARs who serve aboard Comfort sharp and ready to deploy in response to a crisis," said Capt. Lanny Boswell, commanding officer of Comfort's medical treatment facility. "The ship must be ready to get underway and fully operational in five days. These training exercises ensure Comfort is ready to go whenever we are needed."

"The coordination and practice the crew receives during the COMFEX keeps our skills and mindset sharp," said Boswell. "So we do a Comfort Exercise every quarter where we go through various drills. We also check all of the equipment, ship's systems, supplies, and work on future planning. This particular COMFEX was focused on the logistical skillset requirements for the ship to become fully operational."

Capt. William Thomas, Comfort's master said, "COMFEX flexes the ship's capabilities and helps prepare the crew for a potential, short-fused activation of Comfort to respond to an emergency or a humanitarian mission."

"The CIVMARs played a very important role in the COMFEX," said Thomas. "The CIVMARs partnered with Ashore Training Team representatives to facilitate fork truck and life raft training for Sailors attached to the Comfort's medical treatment facility."

The COMFEX also focused on activation competencies training in medical drills and chemical, biological and radiological preparation.

"The Comfort is a giant, turn-key, mobile trauma unit," said Boswell. "When the ship is fully manned and operational, we are the seventh largest trauma center in the world."

"Comfort's primary mission is to provide critical medical support to military personnel on the battlefield," said Boswell. "Secondly, we provide humanitarian aid in response to a crisis such as an earthquake or hurricane."

The third mission set for Comfort is to spread goodwill by participating in overseas deployments such as Continuing Promise 2015.

"The ship is known primarily for deployments like the Continuing Promise missions," added Boswell. "It is important to remember Comfort responded to real world crisis including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake which devastated Haiti."

Comfort is outfitted with 12 fully equipped operating rooms, a 1,000-bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, medical laboratory, pharmacy, optometry and lens laboratory, CT scanner and two oxygen producing plants.

"Comfort cannot do what we do without military operations, highly-skilled civilian mariners and medical professionals," said Boswell. "Our mission is one of the most relevant ever in deterring extremist hatred. When a country suffers a disaster such as an earthquake, which would take many years or decades to recover from, this is when the population of such a country is most vulnerable to extremist influence."

Medicine is considered one of the most stabilizing factors to counter extremist thought, added Boswell. "To know one's family is taken care of medically helps to counter the urge to turn to extremism in the throes of a crisis. This is one of the reasons it is important to keep Comfort and our crew ready."

When fully operational, Comfort's crew is made up of military support staff, medical professionals and civilian mariners.

"As the master aboard Comfort, I am responsible for the overall operation and safety of the ship and the safety of everyone on board," said Thomas. "There are three manning scales which determine the number of CIVMARs serving on the Comfort. During reduced operational status, there are 20 CIVMARs who man Comfort. Then the ship has a transit manning scale where manning is increased to 46 CIVMARs. When the ship transitions into a fully operational status, the number of CIVMARS assigned to Comfort is 71."

"The CIVMARs are responsible for the ship's main propulsion, auxiliaries, safety, security, ship's navigation, food service and reduced operating status habitability," said Thomas. "The engineering department is responsible for habitability throughout the entire ship to include ventilation, heating and water. We provide support for the hospital."

"When Comfort is fully operational, the ship has approximately 1,200 crew members, most of whom are medical professionals who spend much of their time at other medical facilities," said Boswell.

"When I work with Capt. Thomas, we understand there is no way Comfort's mission can succeed without integration between the various professional cultures aboard the ship," said Boswell. "The success of our crew involves an incredibly complex coordination and cooperation between our various cultures. We cannot meet Comfort's mission without teamwork."

"We put egos aside aboard the Comfort," said Thomas. "The MTF commanding officer and the ship's master are partners with a common goal. Our common goal is to ensure the hospital ship is ready to activate and ready to get underway in five days. To these ends, we work together as team to ensure all members of the crew, both on the MTF side and CIVMAR side, understand the importance of this partnership. My motto is we are nothing without the hospital."

There are critical responsibilities aboard Comfort, which are shared by the CIVMARs and the military crew.

"A good example of the crew's shared responsibilities is damage control and firefighting," said Thomas. "The ship has joint damage control firefighting parties, so the MTF Sailors stand alongside the CIVMARs when we hold our damage control and firefighting drills."

Abandon ship drills are another example of an event undertaken by Sailors teamed with CIVMARs.

"We are all very proud of Comfort and we are proud of the job we do aboard this ship," concluded Thomas. "We are also proud of the relationship between the ship's Sailors and CIVMARs and the way we have come together as a team."

Hospital ships of various types have been part of the U.S. Navy's inventory since 1798.

Comfort is the third U.S. Navy ship to bear the name Comfort. Comfort was built as a San Clemente-class oil tanker in 1976 by the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company. Her original name was S.S. Rose City and the ship was launched from San Diego.

The ship's career as an oil tanker ended when it was delivered to the U.S. Navy as USNS Comfort Dec. 1, 1987.

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