USNS Comfort & Navy Medicine Tests Critical Core

The following blog follows USNS Comfort as she partnered with Navy Medicine during a mass casualty drill in Norfolk, Va., Dec. 8-12. Exercises such as the recent Comfort Exercise helps integrate USNS Comfort’s civilian mariners alongside our Navy’s medical community to maintain mission readiness. Blog written by Nathan Potter with MSC public affairs.

On short notice the massive white hospital ship came alive with patients being transported from the flight deck to casualty receiving, operating rooms, and intensive care units. Civilian mariners onboard USNS Comfort had teamed up with Navy doctors, nurses, and corpsmen who reported in for duty just days before on Naval Station Norfolk and together they faced an intense week handling mass casualties needing trauma care, Dec. 8-12.

Fortunately this was only a drill. Had this been a real call, the combined medical and civilian mariner team would have only five days to embark over 1,200 personnel and set sail; no small feat for a nearly 70,000 ton vessel normally in reduced operating status and maintained by less than 80 personnel.

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), one of two hospital ships in Military Sealift Command’s inventory, is better suited to respond to scenarios such as this exercise thanks to a homeport shift from Baltimore, Md. in March, 2013 and now being closer to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth—the Navy’s top teaching hospital with the most specialized personnel for trauma care—located nearby.

The exercise, known as COMFEX, was a test to activate Comfort’s “critical core;” the starting lineup team of 242 Sailors and civil service mariners on call to bring the ship and Military Treatment Facility (MTF) to full operational status. The importance for the civilian mariners and MTF to be able to work together as a single team is critical where a floating hospital has to be ready to provide care even in rough seas.

December’s exercise of the critical core is a critical step since Comfort’s homeport shift to Norfolk last year.

“Even while preparing for a humanitarian assistance deployment, we must always be vigilant in maintaining focus on our primary mission,” said Capt. Rachel Haltner, commanding officer, USNS Comfort’s MTF. “Especially since we may be called upon to deploy within five days to support the warfighter or respond to a disaster.”

Sailors practice treating a patient on a training device during a mass casualty drill aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20). USNS Comfort provides rapid, flexible, and mobile acute health service support to Department of Defense units deployed ashore, and naval amphibious task and battle forces afloat, with a secondary mission providing a mobile surgical hospital service and acute medical care in disaster or humanitarian relief. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Laura Hoover)

Sailors practice treating a patient on a training device during a mass casualty drill aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Laura Hoover)

During the exercise, civilian mariners and MTF personnel faced a series of scenarios ranging from validating equipment in the various clinics to a mass casualty drill. Comfort’s engines were lit to simulate going underway during the week-long fast cruise.

“COMFEX provides the opportunity to test all of the equipment onboard and allows for the MTF personnel, civilian mariners, and critical core personnel to build relationships and work together as a cohesive team. It is a vital exercise to ensure Comfort’s readiness to respond to any crisis,” said Capt. Bill McCarthy, USNS Comfort’s master.

Comfort is an ideal platform whether it’s providing combat support as a floating theater trauma hospital or responding to a natural disaster and delivering humanitarian relief as she did during the 2010 response to the earthquake in Haiti. The MTF onboard is one of the largest trauma facilities in the United States and, even with the added challenges of being on a ship; they are still able to maintain the same standards of care as any other major Level III trauma hospital. The combined civilian mariner and MTF team are capable of providing mobile, acute surgical medical facilities worldwide.

“Afloat theater hospitalization is a critical element in the continuum of care for deployed forces and humanitarian assistance missions, which is why Military Sealift Command and Navy Medicine work together to deliver a ready ship,” said Mr. Jim Herbst, MSC’s MTF project manager for the T-AH Mercy class hospital ships.

COMFEX is one of many pre-deployment milestones to prepare Comfort’s crew and MTF for Operation Continuing Promise in South America scheduled for next spring. Continuing Promise provides humanitarian assistance including medical, dental, veterinary support to partner nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.



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