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 is a licensed, civilian seafarer in Military Sealift Command, and the master of the MSC hospital ship Comfort.
Axe: How has the ship performed, so far?
Finger: This is a relatively challenging environment, going to ports where we have very little support, that aren’t used to handling ships of this size. There’s a lot of coordination required. We have to do a lot of things ourselves, where we might be able to count on shore support, if we were going into fully developed ports. We have them all pretty much IDed ahead of time. For example, in Haiti, which is relatively undeveloped, we had to take special steps for making water there, because we had no access to potable water from an approved facility. In the Dominican Republic, we were out in an extremely exposed anchorage, and had issues getting support services out to the ship, because of sea conditions. We worked closely with the husbanding agent in port and the embassy’s [military liaison] mil group.
We’ve gotten phenomenal support from the mil groups with garbage. There have been some issues with getting trash over the side, so got with the husbanding agent and the mil group and the embassy staff and worked with the local government and came up with a way to properly screen garbage and make sure it went to where wanted it to go. That kind of thing comes up, when they’re not used to the Navy coming in.
In Panama, we were generating 30 cubic yards of trash, on a daily basis. We can compact that, to get it down smaller. We have methods on board for handling medical waste. We do not transfer medical waste to host nations.
For each port we’re working with, we’re putting together a file we can pass on to other crews: you want to anchor here, not there, the husbanding agent here had trouble with this service — that type of thing.
Axe: What’s been the most rewarding experience for you, on this mission?
Finger: This is the third mission I’ve been on, and the capstone of my career. From a personal point of view, this is the most rewarding ship I’ve been on. To see the looks in the little kids’ eyes … The Seabees had taken a vacant lot, with potholes, and yesterday built a ballfield. They brought the kids out. You see them going into optometry, kids who never had glasses and never could see. The optometry folks give them glasses, they can see clearly — it’s great.