Navy Vessels Are Set To Embark On Two Humanitarian Missions

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
San Diego Union-Tribune
April 26, 2008 By Steve Liewer, Staff Writer
SAN DIEGO -- The Navy is aiming a double-barreled blast of good will across the ocean next week as two ships shove off from San Diego on missions of mercy.
The amphibious assault ship Boxer will leave San Diego Naval Base at 32nd Street on Monday on a two-month voyage to Latin America that is scheduled to include stops in Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru.
Three days later, the hospital ship Mercy will depart on a four-month cruise to the Philippines, Vietnam, Micronesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea.
Local doctors and nurses will join Navy medical personnel and volunteers from several charities to care for thousands of patients at each stop, both on board the ship and in clinics organized ashore. They'll remove cataracts, fix cleft palates, fill teeth and hand out prescriptions while Navy construction battalions repair clinics and water systems.
On this mission, for the first time, Mercy medical staff members will be able to treat kidney stones and make dental crowns.
“We're ready for anything that might come our way,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Raya, who heads the ship's dental department.
Navy ships routinely perform good works whenever they make liberty calls in foreign countries, but those jobs always were secondary to the sea service's fighting mission.
Since they were added to the fleet in the mid-1970s, the Mercy and its sister ship, the Baltimore-based Comfort, have largely remained at anchor except for brief deployments during the two Iraq wars. With the advent of full-scale battlefield hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ships appeared headed for the scrap yard.
Then a massive tsunami hit southern Asia in December 2004. With the devastation stretching over several countries and thousands of miles of shoreline, the Navy sent the Mercy a few weeks later to render aid in some of the hardest-hit areas.
The relief missions gave the Navy and the United States a big public-relations boost in Indonesia and Bangladesh, Muslim countries where the U.S. image took a hit after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Navy planned follow-up humanitarian cruises to Asia and Latin America by the Mercy and Comfort in 2006 and 2007, and by the San Diego-based amphibious assault ship Peleliu last year.
The aid missions drew enthusiastic crowds at every stop and energized the crews.
“It was incredible,” said Merchant Marine Capt. Bob Wiley, who commanded the Mercy on its 2006 cruise and will do so on this year's as well. “I'd mark the '06 mission, and this one, as the benchmarks of my career.”
With a push from boosters such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Navy elevated humanitarian efforts to one of its “core missions” in its new maritime strategy.
“It's something we can do that's not warlike, but it's a mission the Navy medical staff is very well-equipped to carry out,” said Bob Zentmyer of El Cajon, who retired as a captain in 1992 after 38 years in the Navy medical corps. “If medical care is needed, that's where we ought to go.”
Compared to war, the missions are cheap. The budget for the Mercy mission is $20 million, said Lt. Sarah Self-Kyler, a spokeswoman for the Navy's 3rd Fleet. That's less than the cost of two hours of the occupation of Iraq, according to calculations from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Some civilian doctors have criticized the missions as focusing too heavily on public relations and not enough on long-term fixes for the chronic medical needs in the countries the Navy visits.
Representatives of some of the charities that have partnered with the Navy say they're trying to plug that gap.
“We hope to establish ties and establish programs. We look for opportunities to stay longer,” said Rand Walton, a spokesman for Project HOPE, which has joined all of the Navy's recent humanitarian missions. “That's what (charities) do best.”
The leader of the San Diego-based International Relief Teams aid organization said he hopes to see the Navy return to the same places and schedule future visits further in advance.
“It allows the locals to build up trust. It takes time,” said Barry La Forgia, a retired Air Force pilot who is the charity's executive director. “You can plan for a better intervention that leaves a larger footprint.”