The U.S. Navy is no stranger to humanitarian missions. But with the emergence of “smart-power” doctrine, focused on building alliances and exporting stability, professional capacity and good governance to what Tom Barnett calls “the gap” of the developing world, Navy humanitarians have found themselves on the front lines of U.S. and world security, especially in Africa (via Africa Partnership Station) and Latin America (by way of Operation Continuing Promise). In April 2009, the Navy hospital ship Comfort set sail from Virginia on a four-month mission to deliver medical, engineering and training assistance to seven Latin American nations. David Axe interviews some of the key participants.
by DAVID AXE
Captain Thomas Finger, pictured, is a licensed, civilian seafarer in Military Sealift Command, and the master of the MSC hospital ship Comfort.
Axe: How would you describe your job?
Finger: We [the civilian MSC crew] handle ship’s navigation and ship’s functions, like hotel services, to the embarked [mission] personnel. … If we were a hospital on land, we would be the building and maintenance department.
Axe: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Finger: The biggest challenge is the size of the ship. This ship is almost 900 feet long and 100 feet wide, with a draft of 30 feet. There are a lot of places we cannot get to, pier-side. The only site could get pier-side [so far in Continuing Promise] was here in Panama. There was just not enough water, not enough piers, not enough tug boats to get us alongside. The big challenge, then, is how get mission personnel where they need to go. The patient and crew launches are run by ship’s crew. If the weather picks up, is it still safe to run boats? What steps can we take to mitigate that risk? I’m proud to say, we’ve anchored at exposed ports and still been accident-free.
Axe: What does a typical day look like for you?
Finger: Our day starts a 5 o’clock, when we get up to launch the boats. At daybreak, we embark the medical personnel and engineering teams going ashore. Depending on where we are, that can be as many as six boat runs. Once we get that done, we normally start setting up for moving cargo ashore …
With 900 people on board, we generate a lot of trash. One of the biggest things is, how are we going to, in an environmentally safe manner, get trash ashore for disposal. Normally, a barge comes from the beach and we lower trash by hand or by crane into the barge and get it moved ashore.
We have an embarked helicopter detachment on board that will supplement boat transfer. But we can’t be moving cargo or garbage or even personnel by boat, when we’re doing flight ops. We’re constantly working with the mission staff, the hospital staff and the helicopter staff, to keep things flowing.
Axe: What are the advantages of having civilian crew?
Finger: We are civil service employees, documented by the Merchant Marine or Coast Guard. This is a Coast Guard-certificate ship, run by the Department of the Navy with a Merchant Marine crew who are all civil service employees. There are 40 such ships in the fleet. All of the non-combatant ships in the U.S. Navy are Military Sealift Command-run.
The biggest advantage is the size of the crew. All of our personnel are licensed and experienced. The Navy will have on-going training programs, for example for junior enlisted sailors, up on the bridge, doing gopher stuff and learning a job. But our crew come on board, fully trained and fully documented. We have a crew of 64, plus four cadets who are trainees. If the navy operated ship like this, the crew would be a little over 200.
The second advantage is that we don’t have any [operations tempo] restrictions. If we have a ship that has just returned from a six-month deployment, and something comes up, we can take that ship that just returned and turn it right back around and send it out on a deployment again. The Navy can’t.