WASHINGTON — The USNS Comfort hospital ship is nearing the end of an 11-week mission to Central and South American nations, having already treated more than 26,000 patients in five stops — and serving as a diplomatic counterweight to competitors’ activities in the region.
The ship left Norfolk on October 11, for stops in Ecuador, Peru, Honduras and Colombia, which had two visits. The treatments included more than 560 surgeries on the ship.
The work “has exceeded expectations in sheer number but more importantly, the quality of care (and respect) it provides to every patient seen and treated by the Comfort crew,” Lt. Commander David Lloyd, a Navy spokesperson, told TMN.
The 10-story, 895-foot-long Comfort is a former oil tanker now painted with huge red crosses to show its medical status.
Among those treated on the current mission are Venezuela refugees who crossed into neighboring nations seeking medical treatment, a point underscored often by Pentagon officials during briefings.
“The Comfort is currently in Honduras and will continue treating those in need until the ship departs this week,” Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters on Monday. “Contrast this with Russia, whose approach to the man-made disaster in Venezuela is to send bomber aircraft instead of humanitarian assistance. The Venezuelan government should be focusing on providing humanitarian assistance and aid to lessen the suffering of its people and not on Russian warplanes.”
The Comfort’s mission was launched two months after the Peace Ark, a Chinese hospital ship, made an 11-nation swing in the region, including a stop in Venezuela.
The current mission falls under the auspices of U.S. Southern Command’s “Enduring Promise” initiative. It has been talked up by Defense Secretary James Mattis during meetings with his Central and South American counterparts.
Mattis announced on August, during a visit to Colombia, that the Comfort would travel to that nation at the request of Colombia’s government, in large part to help treat the medical issues of more than 1 million Venezuelans entering neighboring Colombia.
“It is an absolutely a humanitarian mission,” Mattis said then, according to Pentagon transcripts. “We’re not sending soldiers; we’re sending doctors. And it’s an effort to deal with the human cost of Maduro.”
Mattis was referring to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
At times, the Comfort crew is assisted by local personnel, who Lloyd said were instrumental in helping with both medical treatment and language issues. The ship’s crew consists of about 200 U.S. and partner nation military doctors, nurses, and technicians, he said, including some born in the nations being visited.
Others join depending on the stop. For example, a team of Royal Navy medics joined the crew during one of the Colombia stops to help treat Venezuelan refugees, the Navy said.
In addition, about 60 medical and dental professional volunteers from non-governmental organizations have joined to support the mission, Lloyd said.
Depending on the stop, some patients had to be flown by helicopter to the ship, because local ports could not accommodate the vessel.
“The patients selected to receive treatment onboard or at the Medical sites were chosen by their country’s Minister of Health and local government based on the type of care the Comfort could provide,” Lloyd said. “Comfort crew did not require patients to identify their country of origin or citizenship. We treated each patient that came to the ship during the time we were at each mission stop.”
During each visit, Comfort’s medical team has treated about 750 patients per day at each medical site on shore, and conducted approximately 20 surgeries per day aboard the vessel, he said.