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US Navy Hospital Ship Treats 98,000 People on Latin American Mission


One of the U.S. Navy's two huge hospital ships, USNS Comfort, has just finished a four-month mission to 12 Latin American countries, during which it provided free health care to 98,000 people. VOA's Al Pessin visited the ship, along with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on the last day of its mission last week, off the coast of Suriname.

"Welcome aboard everyone," said Lieutenant Commander Tracey Kunkel. "Good afternoon."

After a 20-minute helicopter ride over the Atlantic, the huge white-painted ship with large red crosses on the side came into view. Inside, Lieutenant Commander Tracey Kunkel welcomed Secretary Gates, his counterpart from Suriname and other officials to the ship's main operating room.

"Welcome to the O.R.," said Commander Kunkel. "We are actually in the centerline of the ship, so fore and aft, starboard and port we're centerline. So the place on the ship where there's the least roll has been the O.R., which is very convenient. It came in handy on this trip."

The stable operating room 'came in handy' during more than 1,100 surgical procedures the ship's doctors performed on this mission.

During Secretary Gates' visit to the Comfort, several patients were still on the ship, in their final hours of post operative recovery.

Suriname's Minister of Defense Ivan Fernald chatted with one girl about how she was feeling. Later, Minister Fernald spoke about the ship's mission.

"The doctors, nurses and health care professionals from the Comfort have done a very good job," he said. "I hope that we can look forward to other humanitarian assistance programs similar to that of the Comfort."

In addition to the on-board surgery, other doctors, dentists and nurses provided other types of care on the ship, and at local clinics on shore. The ship's military and civilian crew also took care of farm animals, trained local health care workers and repaired medical equipment.

"Especially, for a non-medical person like myself, it was pretty amazing experience," said Captain Robert Kapcio, commander of the Comfort's mission to Latin America. "I could probably tell stories for three or four hours."

"We had a 13-year-old boy come in who had cataracts in both his eyes, and basically blind," he continued. "He walked off the ship being able to see. The parents were all in tears. They hug you. They're just overwhelmed because you've changed their kid's life."

The captain says for some people, the veterinary services were just as important as the human health care. He remembers one farmer in Ecuador who was more concerned about getting treatment for sick horse than for his daughter.

"His kind of concept was, 'If you don't save my horse, I can't afford to buy another one and everyone in my family is going to starve to death anyway, so save my horse,'" he said.

Captain Kapcio says the Comfort's mission clearly had an impact on the people it encountered in Central and South America, and it also had a less obvious impact on members of the ship's own crew.

"While we were changing lives, I think many people's lives on the ship have been changed," he said. "And, it gave me some insights into other things that are out there to do if I retire. So maybe when I get out of the military instead of going to work for a contractor and doing defense contracts, I could definitely see myself doing some of that volunteerism."

The Comfort, and its identical sister ship in the Pacific, the Mercy, are frequently used to help provide aid after natural disasters, like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. But in between disasters, they do humanitarian missions like this one, which Secretary Gates told the crew benefit both the host countries and United States.

"You've made a huge impact everyplace you've gone, helped an awful lot of people in a lot of different ways," he said. "And you've created a lot of good will for our country. So thank you very much for your service."

But answering a reporter's question, the secretary said the mission was not specifically aimed at countering the influence of the leftist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, which also provide medical aid to Suriname and other countries in the region.