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
Lieutenant Landon McKinley is an aviator with squadron HCS-26, Detachment 3, assigned to the hospital ship Comfort, with 14 aircrew and two MH-60S helicopters.
Axe: Describe the detachment’s mission.
McKinley: The detachment’s purpose is to provide logistical support to Comfort‘s mission. We transport a great deal of cargo, move a lot of VIPs. Our main purpose now is patient transfer, both from shore to the hospital, and once fully recovered, we take them back home. We also provide search-and-rescue and alert launch for the ship, in case there’s someone on another ship that needs to come to our hospital for surgery.
Axe: Does this mission represent a change for you?
McKinley: From our standpoint, it’s much different. My squadron is a logistical squadron. Our bread and butter is moving people and things from point A to point B. This [Comfort's mission] is much different than normal. Usually, we’re flying soldiers, sailors and cargo from point A to B in the Persian Gulf, or we’re stationed on supply ships, moving [vertical replenishment] loads from the supply ships to warships: that’s sort of our standard missions-set.
On the surface, this mission doesn’t appear different. We’re still moving cargo and passengers, but the nature of the mission is much different. We’re moving back and forth, between ship and shore, usually only a couple miles out, so it’s run after run of patients and cargo. We’ve had the opportunity to go into some incredible places — LZs and sites that, under normal circumstances, we would not go into. In terms of flying, it’s been a fantastic experience. We’ve seen a lot of incredible places. They’re perfectly good LZs … smaller zones, a little more difficult to get into and out of. They’re not better or worse, just different.
I’m not sure of the ship’s capability to move large cargo [on its own]. So we’ll move wheelchairs and other large cargo, from ship to shore — our advantage is our ability to move this cargo. If the ship is in port, there are no issues, we can bring the cargo to the deck and crane it off. But getting supplies off the deck and onto a boat — I’m not sure how feasible that is.
Axe: What’s it like, flying from Comfort, compared to other ships?
McKinley: It’s a bit different. The flight deck is much higher and in a different location. Usually, there’s a nice clear area off the back [of other ships] where there’s nothing but ocean. But here we’ve got a hangar bay on the back side of the landing pad, and also the majority of the ship behind us. That can make things a little bit slower for us. When on a supply ship, there’s a smaller military presence aboard. There’s actually more Navy on this ship than I’m used to dealing with on a supply ship. It’s interesting, the coordination between the Navy and civilians.
In terms of patient transfers, we treat them just like we treat anyone else, whether VIP or doctors or a load of troops going to a ship. They’re going to have the same safety equipment. We know the cargo is slightly more precious, with a load of kids, vice load of SEALs, but for most part, we handle them basically the same.
This whole thing has been new and exciting for me. One of my favorite days was one of the first days the operation got into Haiti. It was exciting, seeing how the machine was going to work, with the coordination of so many people. There was also the thrill of seeing a new place, watching a different set of trees and roads going by.