Magazine article National Defense

Navy Offers 'Comfort' to Wounded Troops

Magazine article National Defense

Navy Offers 'Comfort' to Wounded Troops

Article excerpt

Hospital ship engages in regular training drills, prepares for potential combat

At the end of May, a relatively rare event was scheduled to take place: The USNS Comfort (T-AH 20)--one of the nation's two military hospital ships--would pull away from its layberth at Baltimore's Canton Pier, steam down the Chesapeake Bay and head out to sea.

This happens no more than once a year. It is noteworthy, because when the Comfort sets sail, it can mean that large numbers of U.S. military personnel are about to become casualties.

"These are valuable ships for making a profound statement to the world that we mean business," Capt. John Zarkowsky, the Navy's hospital ship projects officer, told National Defense. "When these ships sail out on a real mission, it means that we are willing to fight, and we are prepared to take care of a lot of casualties."

It's reassuring for U.S. combat troops to know that medical care is close at hand, Zarkowsky said.

"That's one of the reasons that these ships are so well-funded," Zarkowsky said. The Navy spends about $14 million per year-- or $7 million each--to keep the two ships ready for use.

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.

"It's as big as the fifth-largest trauma center in the United States," according to Lt. Cmdr. Shawn M. Cali, a spokesman for the Navy's Military Sealift Command (MSC), which operates the two ships.

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. Under the Geneva Convention, hospital ships are protected against hostile fire, Zarkowsky said. In return, he noted, such ships are required to accept "all comers," even enemy casualties.

No casualties, however, were expected on this brief mission. The Comfort would sail a short distance into the Atlantic Ocean, off Norfolk, Va., and conduct a ship material-assessment and readiness-testing (SMART)inspection.

All of the ship's equipment--engines, boilers, rudders--would be checked. Drills would be conducted on the helicopter flight deck. A small cadre of medical personnel would inspect its surgical, radiological, pharmaceutical and recovery facilities. "We want to make sure that everything is working," Zarkowsky explained.

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.

Like all MSC ships, the Comfort is operated by civilian mariners. "We handle everything for the ship," Bradford said. "The Navy provides the medical people to take care of the casualties. …

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