Saturday, June 27, 2009

Three Days at Sea!

Tumaco was a great success, but now it's time to head North! We left Tumaco at about 11:00am on 17 Jun and started the three day transit to La Union, El Salvador. Usually, between each port, we take a day "Strategic Pause." After nearly two solid weeks of non-stop, early morning to late at night work, it is a single day where we let people sleep in, stop the planning rhythm, and usually try to throw in a Bar-B-Que on the flight deck, or in Navy parlance: A Steel-Beach Picnic.

Of course, no Steal-Beach Picnic would be complete without the band! So while the rest of us take the day off, the band plays on! I'll tell you, I was a little suspicious when this Air Force band showed up to set sail on a Navy ship, but these folks are great! They do a tremendous amount of work, supporting all kinds of events on the ship and off. And on top of that, they are GOOD!

So after three days, we dropped anchor off the coast of El Salvador, in the Southwest corner of the country in a town called La Union. El Salvador is known as the "Land of Volcanos" as there are over 200 volcanic peaks in this, the smallest country in Central America.

I worked with the deck crew to drop the anchor and took the following pictures as we anchored at about 6:30am.

I'll try to do another post tomorrow with some pictures of our operations ashore!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Tumaco Wrap-up

It's been a very busy week this week, and I'll talk more about that in my next post, but before we move on from Tumaco, I need to share this with you. At the end of each country, we have a country wrap-up where each of our LOOs (Lines of Operation) get up in front of a group of about 200 or so filling the mess decks, and shares what was accomplished in each country. It's always a special time, but this time, we were told about two young boys. . . Rather than me telling you about it, let me share the story with you through the words of CDR Mark Marino, our Director of Nursing Services:

"We were able to do a lot of good things in Colombia that made everyone feel good about the mission. But the highlight was caring for Eduardo and Andreas.

They both came from six hours away to get help. And because they didn't have a place to stay until their surgery date, we brought them aboard the ship the first day and they stayed with us until we pulled up anchor 10 days later.

Eduardo was a toddler when he was home alone (mom is a prostitute and dad is in jail for drug trafficking) and he knocked a candle into his bed. He sustained severe burns to the whole right side of his body and he lost his right hand. When he was five years old, mom discovered that he could make some money begging because of his burns and missing hand. So he was pushed into the streets as a beggar. He went from relative to relative and then was abandoned and homeless at the age of eight. Fast forward through four years of homelessness and he is picked up by the Colombian equivalent of Social Services and placed in foster care.

Andreas was living under a bridge with his family when he was five. A car driving by flicked a cigarette off the bridge and onto his shanty setting it ablaze. He and his brother and sister sustained severe burns to their bodies. I don't know if it was stigma or cost of care, but they too were abandoned and have been in foster care for five years now.

Both boys came aboard to have their scars revised. Andreas (on the right) had limited range of motion to his neck because of the scarring. Eduardo could not completely close his right eye and that side of his mouth was in a permanent droop because of scar tissue.

This is where the fun begins! Neither kid had experienced anything like this. They came aboard on a helicopter and then the staff treated them like their own. Over a week, we took them all over the ship. They sat in the Captain's chair on the bridge and spent the time looking through binoculars the wrong way at all of us b/c we looked miniature! They thought it was hilarious! We got them into our flight tower where they talked on the radio to some of our flight crew and got to watch the helicopters lift supplies off the deck. They had no idea what to say on the radios so they just kept saying "hola" and our Spanish speaking pilot would answer back w/ a question only to get a "hola!"

I took them up to our galley where Eduardo was enthralled with all of the drink fountains. He had 3 separate drink glasses on his tray and drank 5 different sodas and juices. They ate so much ice cream, I thought they were going to pop. They played games with the staff, regularly had meals with us in the galley, and were just the greatest kids. Eduardo commented to his social worker that he never before felt so important or loved as he did on the ship.

A bunch of my nursing staff went up to the flight deck to see them off and both boys were crying and saying that they didn't want to leave. Heart breaking but also rewarding in that they had a week where they were just normal kids with no worries about their next meal or bed. And they got to do and see some really cool stuff that just about any little boy would love. It was a privilege to be there for them."

The people of Tumaco were gracious hosts and it was a pleasure to have been able to meet them and work together with the Ministry of Health to meet some of the medical needs of these people. We provided over 65,000 healthcare services to over 16,000 people in the 10 days that we were in Tumaco. Additionally, we were able to perform 247 surgeries from cleft lip and pallet repairs to forming an ear for a young lady who was born without her right ear! It's amazing to see what happens to radically change people's lives!

As I write this entry this evening, we have already arrived in La Union, El Salvador and are hard at work in the "Land of the Volcanos!"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Change of Command!

Command in the Navy is a sacred trust. The Commander is ultimately responsible for mission accomplishment, and the life and safety of his crew. Every command in the Navy can chart an unbroken line of succession from its creation or commissioning through to its ultimate decommissioning. Today, we participated in the transition of command for our Mission Commander, the Commander of Amphibious Squadron SIX. The Commander of Amphibious Squadron SIX, Commodore Bob Lineberry, was assigned as the Mission Commander of Continuing Promise '09 about a year ago. Commodore Lineberry led all of the planning efforts, pre-deployment site surveys, and finally the execution of this mission from our sailing on April 1st through today.

Today, his relief, Captain Tom Negus, relieved him of command and is now both the Commander, Amphibious Squadron SIX, and the Mission Commander for the rest of Continuing Promise '09.

The Change of Command ceremony is very special in the Navy. It is a public display of the transfer of the mantel of leadership from one person to another. During the ceremony, the outgoing Commander reads his orders (directing him to detach from one command and report to another). His successor likewise reads his orders (ordering him to report to this command), and states, "I relieve you, Sir." The outgoing Commander then replies, "I stand relieved." At that moment, the new Commander assumes full responsibility for the command.

A Change of Command is always a time of mixed emotions. Commodore Lineberry has been a great leader and has been a true friend to this mission, and to the crew of USNS COMFORT. He will be greatly missed! But at the same time, we look forward with excitement to the leadership of Commodore Negus! He has been onboard the ship for about a week now, being briefed by a wide cross-section of the crew and observing first-hand how we conduct operations. He will bring a fresh set of eyes and a renewed enthusiasm to this mission that will no doubt reenergize our efforts as we push forward to the end!

Last night, our wonderful Air Force Band helped us say goodbye to Commodore Linebery with a great concert on the messdecks. The Commodore joined the band as they played "Smoke on the Water", some AC/DC, and finally some Blues. It was a great way to say goodbye!

A career in the Navy is full of hellos and goodbyes. It's never easy, but it keeps our Commands strong, nimble, and ready to face the challenges ahead. It battles complacency and the natural cycle of organizational decay that happens when we become stagnant in our thinking.

Commodore Lineberry, we wish you all the best as you move on in your storied career with the traditional Navy blessing of "Fair Winds and Following Seas!"

Commodore Negus, we welcome you as our Mission Commander and look forward to your leadership in the weeks ahead!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Tumaco, Colombia

Tumaco Colombia is a small, sea-side town on the South-Western edge of Colombia. As in so many of the places we've visited, the need is great. Children, old people, and many in between stand in line for hours waiting to be seen.

As is usually the case, LCDR Hobbs (Current Operations for our Mission Commander) and I went ashore together to gain some situational awareness of what is happening at both our Medical/Dental sites and at other activities around town. In this picture, it's me, our Colombian Army guard, Danielle Wooten (our Director for Administration) and Big Al Hobbs.

This country is different than all of our previous stops because we have a contingent of our crew who are Remaining Over Night (RON)on shore instead of returning to the ship each evening. Because we're anchored out, this gives them the opportunity of getting a head start on the day and reduces the number of people we need to transport ashore each day. Our first stop of the day was to the hotel that is serving as our RON site. It is a decent hotel with Air Conditioned rooms, a satisfactory restaurant, and a pool. (I'm not sure I would swim in the pool, but it's there for the brave of heart!) Of course, by the time our people get there after working in the sweltering heat all day, I'm not sure they're much in the mood to enjoy the few amenities offered, well, maybe the A/C!

Our next stop was our engineering site. This site is the most ambitious project undertaken by our Seabeas. In less than two weeks, they are building four structures: Three separate classroom buildings, and a separate kitchen facility! We were there on day four of the project, and as you can see from the pictures, they are making some pretty awesome progress!


Next we went to the Medical site. We are referring to this site as our "Super Site" because it really is a perfect location for this mission! It consists of a large, walled school complex with multiple buildings, plenty of space, and a relatively great place to separate patients, allow them to wait in chairs, under tents, and manage their flow effectively throughout the site.

Following our visit to the Medical site, we were taken to the Colombian Marine Base where we caught a Colombian Marine boat back to the ship. As we were getting ready to leave, I noticed the boat shown in this picture. This is some of the latest in Drug Running technology. These semi-submersible boats ride mostly under water, with less than two feet extending above the surface. They can carry eight TONS of cocaine! Well, this one won't any more!

On the way home, we took a Colombian Marine boat that has been supporting our efforts to move people back and forth. It was a pretty quick ride out to the ship, but it was a little bumpy! When we arrived at the COMFORT, we had a bit of a challenge getting back aboard. First we tried from the Port side, but the Pacific swell was pretty intense and only one person from our boat was able to make the leap of faith from the Colombian boat to one of our lifeboats that was lowered to the water. So after banging together a bit and subsequently parting the stern line from the Colombian boat, we went to the other side of the ship and eventually made it work!

Finally tonight, we've been employing some technology of our own. This is a picture of our VTC system that we have been using to share some of the really cool stuff we've been doing on this trip with Residents and Medical Staff at facilities ashore. This is an abdominal hysterectomy that was done to remove a uterus with huge fibroid tumors. Medical facilities from around the country were able to connect through a bridge and watch this surgery and speak to our surgeons real-time in the OR during the case. Pretty cool, huh!?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Crossing the Line!

N 0 Deg. 0 Min. 0 Sec. by W 80 Deg. 50 Min. 41 Sec. Plug those coordinates into Google Earth, and that is where our ship, full of slimy polliwogs crossed the equator, came face to face with the terror of Davy Jones, endured his assault and paid the terrible price of one caught in the grip of the great Neptunous Rex! King of every creature in the sea!

After an evening of wogs, escaping from thier dungeons to reek havoc on the newly emerging pirate crew of the Barnacled lass, the witching hour was upon us. A faint calm came over the ship, and suddenly wogs started dropping like flies. Many barely made it to their racks when the smothering darkness of night carried them into a fitful sleep! He is Coming! He is Coming! Echo'd hollowly throughout the ship. And then blackness. . .

As the light of morning slowly broke across the eastern sky, commotion ran throughout the ship. Crusty Shellbacks ran through the ship, looking for those slimy polliwogs and gathering them together in Casualty Receiving. The details of what happened next are classified (I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill myself), but suffice it to say the slime that was the polliwog was revealed, and through a thorough cleansing process, the transformation to Shellback began!

Over 600 Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, Civilian Partners, and Foreign Military personnel participated in this time-honored Navy tradition! I've looked at hundreds of photos from the event, and the common theme is how big the smiles were on the faces of the wogs!

This was an unplanned part of our mission. In fact, one of the most frequently heard questions prior to June 5th was, "Isn't there any way we can go below the equator and have a Shellback initiation?" The answer had always been, "No! We can't." Then, COMFORT was asked to come to the aid of a Sailor who had some medical problems on one of our ships operating well to the South of us. In order to make that transfer happen, we had to steam much faster than originally planned and we arrived in the Tumaco area much earlier than originally planned. After picking up the ailing Sailor, we had some time to kill, so the request was made to FOURTH Fleet for permission to dip below the equator. That request was approved, and the next morning we crossed the equator!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Panama Canal! A Fitting Farewell!

Today we transited the 42 nautical miles of the Isthmus of Panama through the Panama Canal. My first time through the ditch! I think the most striking thing is to recognize that this is nearly 100 year old technology, built in 1913, and it is an amazing blend of moving parts that quickly raises huge ships nearly 90 feet above sea level and then ushers them across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.

The locks are 1,000 feet long, 110 feet wide, and raise the ship nearly 30 feet at a time. If my math is right, that means that over 3 Million cubic feet of water must flow into the lock to raise the ship. That happens in less than 10 minutes as the ship steadily rises in the lock.

The lock doors are huge and nestle into the lock walls when open. Operated by huge hydraulic cylinders, they quickly move into place to allow the lock to fill. These doors are nearly sixty feet wide and with the part of the doors below the water level, are about 80 feet tall. They are thick enough to have a wide catwalk along the tops of them to allow workers to pass from one side of the lock to the other across the closed doors.

At the top of the Gatun locks is Lake Gatun a picturesque quiet lake that spans the center of the isthmus. This is where we held a memorial service for our fallen shipmate, HMC Branum.

A number of people participated, sharing their experiences with the Chief, reading scripture, and singing songs. The service ended with the singing of the Navy Hymn, Eternal Father. It was a beautiful ceremony.

As the afternoon passed we traveled through the Mira Flores locks and out into the Pacific Ocean. Tonight we closed out our mission in Panama with our Panama Brief, and had our Colombia overview brief as we prepare for Tumaco, Colombia.

Tomorrow is our Strategic Pause: The chance for our crew to sleep in a little, recharge their batteries and get ready to do it all over again!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thank You Senior Chief, May You Rest in Peace.

I had to modify this blog post today because yesterday, we received word from the Chief of Naval Personnel that Chief Branum was selected by the FY-10 Senior Chief Selection Board for promotion to Senior Chief Petty Officer. Her effective date of rank was set at 2 June 2009, the day of her passing.

There are many days on this deployment that have had their difficulties, but none have been like today. This morning, Hospital Corpsman Chief Pamela Branum, our Reserve Liaison Officer, was found to have passed away last night in her sleep.

Chief Branum came to us from Naval Medical Center, Portsmouth. She has been responsible for managing the tremendous number of staff rotations that are the hallmark of this deployment. Just this week, she coordinated over 150 arrivals and departures from the ship.

Working just a few feet outside my office door, I saw her everyday and was always impressed by her competence, her work ethic, and her dedication to this important mission. She will be greatly missed.

This evening at 5:30pm, as all her fellow Chief's formed a gauntlet of respect, she was piped ashore for the last time. Her flag draped casket passed between her shipmates as the bo'sn pipe played and all saluted. As the helicopter's blades began to turn, two bells sounded and on the 1MC: "Hospital Corpsman Chief, Departing" rang throughout the ship. On the pier nearly 700 of her Shipmates rendered honors as our band played the Navy Hymn, "Eternal Father."

Chief Branum spent much of her adult life in service to her country, as a mentor to her Shipmates, and as a leader among leaders.

For many years this sailor stood the watch.
While some of us were in our bunks at night, this sailor stood the watch.
While some of us were in school learning our trade, this Shipmate stood the watch.
Yes.. even before some of us were born into this world, this Shipmate stood the watch.
In those years when the storm clouds of war were seen brewing on the horizon of history, this Shipmate stood the watch.
Many times she would cast an eye ashore and see her family standing there, needing her guidance and help. Needing that hand to hold during those hard times, But she still stood the watch.
She stood the watch for all these years. She stood the watch so that we, our families and our fellow countrymen could sleep soundly in safety, each and every night. Knowing that a sailor stood the watch.
Today we are here to say 'Shipmate... the watch stands relieved. Relieved by those You have Trained, Guided, and Lead. Shipmate you stand relieved.. we have the watch..."

Tomorrow morning, as we transit Gatun Lake in the heart of the Panama Isthmus, in a beautiful, picturesque place of calm waters, we will come together on the Flight Deck to bid farewell to a very special member of the COMFORT family. To Chief Branum's family in Tennessee, we send our heartfelt condolances at this time of loss. We will pray for God's Comfort to surround you and bring you through this time of trial.

Thank you Chief. Thank you for all you did for all of us. May you forever Rest in Peace.