Sunday, September 28, 2008

...and home!

Dear Family and Friends,

We arrived back in San Diego last Thursday to a wonderful homecoming. Our mission is complete (Whew!). I guess it is time to close out this Blog with one final entry. Over the last week or so, I have been struggling with just how to put down in writing what all this has meant to me. I know for myself, and most everyone who served aboard Mercy, this mission will serve as the benchmark for my career.

What we have done:

It is very hard to quantify how you measure the success of a mission like this – because it’s not simply about numbers. First and foremost, this mission was about diplomacy. It was about building relationships with the people who we share this immense span of ocean we call the Pacific. As a mariner, I have spent most of the last 32 years sailing these waters. I have come to know these people as if they were regular neighbors. And I know it’s the relationships between neighbors that will build the foundation for a good neighborhood.

It used to be said America was protected from the world’s ills and troubles by the vastness of two oceans. This is no longer the case. With today’s modern transportation and communication systems, the oceans no longer separate from the rest of the world – if anything they join us together! The places that used to be "way over there" are getting closer to us every day. The neighborhood is shrinking - and like all good neighbors we must trust and depend on each other.

So it’s not about the numbers… On the other hand, everyone seems to like numbers so here are just a few of our final numbers for Pacific Partnership 2008:

Total patients seen: 90,693 (Whoa!)
Surgeries performed: 1,370
Bio-Med repair: $2,965,719 worth of equipment put back into service.
Preventive Medicine: 2,090 hours – Effected population (Est.): 48,500
Veterinary Services: 6,665 Animals Treated.
Training & Subject Matter Expert Exchange: 4,352 Students - 7,703 Contact Hours

I owe so very much to a lot of people who helped make this Blog the success it was. I can’t possibly begin to thank them all - but here are just a few: I first need to thank Captain Scott Gureck who is the public affairs officer for Commander, Pacific Fleet. Scott was a classmate of mine at the Naval War College and it was he who originally dreamed up the idea of my writing a Blog for this voyage. It took a great deal of effort to talk me into to it as well. Scott also used the authority of his office to give me a great deal of top-cover to write whatever it was I felt like writing. I was never pressured by anyone to make changes or to "edit" content. My words in this Blog are mine and mine alone. Another public affairs officer I need to thank is my good friend Rosemary Heiss from the MSC office in Washington DC. Rosie provided me the technical assistance and the "how to" expertise necessary in getting this Blog posted.

It goes without saying that I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my wonderful shipmates here aboard Mercy. It is still amazing to think that such a hodge-podge of professionals – from CIVMARs to Military; from NGOs to our partner nation friends; from college students to all the rest – and each and every one of them having the same vision of what this mission could and should be.

And last but not least, I wish to thank all of you, dear readers, for taking the time to click on to this journal over the last few months. I was so lucky to have been able to be a part of all this. It has been such a privilege to be able to take a ship built for war, and to use it for such a tremendous instrument of peace. My most heartfelt thanks for allowing me to share with you this magnificent adventure.

Warmest regards…


Monday, September 8, 2008

Visited by Angels

Dear Family & Friends,

Since starting this Blog, I have thoroughly enjoyed the many comments posted by various readers. As you probably noticed, I have deliberately avoided commenting on these comments over the course of this voyage. This was for several reasons – mostly; however, it was because I wanted people to be able to post their comments freely and without constraints. I didn’t want to overtly and intentionally encourage the posting of comments. In other words, I did not want readers to believe they were somehow obligated to comment. Nor did I want readers to think their comments would end up being “critiqued” by me.

I’m going to stray from this precept of mine to share with you a comment from my last post. This came from "Nenginin" in Chuuk who posted:

"We the people of Chuuk would have to agree with you when you said your visit to Chuuk was "amazing," but in a different perspective of course. Even after your departure today, we are still amazed when we think back to what you and everyone on the PP08 team did for the people of Chuuk. All of you must have heard so many 'thank yous’ and 'kinisou chapur', but I do not think we can ever thank you ENOUGH. We are truly blessed to have been visited by angels on their big white angel boat :) The sight of the beautiful Mercy in the Chuuk Lagoon will forever live in our hearts."

Wow! "...visited by angels on their big white angel boat." Not bad!!! And just a little humbling…to say the least.

We made it out of Guam – finally. I know you family members at home have been wondering about the folks who are flying out from this stop. It was just a little crazy; however, we finally managed to get everyone embarked aboard an airplane. Your loved ones should be home about the time this gets posted. We are down to just over 500 people aboard. It’s funny how we can have that many folks and the ship seems almost empty.

We have Hawaii in our sights. We’ll be there in about a week.

More to come…


Monday, September 1, 2008

It still hasn’t set in…

Dear Family & Friends,

It still hasn’t set in… We’re done! It’s time to go home now. Our very last mission site is a wrap. We weighed anchor this afternoon from Chuuk and we are on our way back to Guam for a short logistics stop. We will then be headed east for the long voyage back to San Diego (with a brief stop in Hawaii along the way).

It still hasn’t set in… Our stay here in Chuuk was amazing! The folks here were so very friendly and exceptionally appreciative of our efforts. In addition to Chuuk, Mercy sent “fly-away” teams to work on other islands in FSM – both on Pohnpei and Yap. Here are a few of the numbers for our visit in the Federated States of Micronesia:

Total Patients Seen: 17,709
Surgeries Performed: 204
Prescriptions Filled: 27,892
Glasses Given: 9,168
Veterinary: 793

Our bio-medical repair engineers were able to repair an estimated $507, 200 worth of medical equipment. Also, our Seabees and partner engineering personnel refurbished several schools.

It still hasn’t set in… Although our time is getting short, the usual shipboard routine continues on. This morning we maintained our promotion tradition aboard Mercy. One of our General Surgery residents, LT Matt Tadlock, was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. Matt was honored to have the Commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral John Bird, administer the oath. Naturally, the promotion was done on Mercy’s bridge with Matt raising his right hand while placing his left hand on the ship’s wheel.

It still hasn’t set in…although it’s probably a good thing for me. While the medical folks are winding down their operations, I still have my work cut out for me. There still is a trans-Pacific voyage that needs to be made! Perhaps this will set in for me when we’re securely moored in San Diego.

More to come…


Saturday, August 30, 2008


Dear Family & Friends,

It’s a sprint to the finish here as we wind things up in Chuuk. What can I say about this place? The beauty of this lagoon is absolutely stunning! The absolute splendor of these islands takes your breath away. I mean, this is something out of a James Michener novel. For someone like myself – an amateur WWII historian - there is so much to see here. This was, as many of you know, a bastion for the Japanese fleet during the war. Much of this fleet was wiped out (47 ships sunk) during “Operation Hailstorm” in February of 1944. And come to find out, Mercy is the largest ship to visit Chuuk since the Yamato anchored here in 1943.

The list of VIPs we’ve hosted has kept me pretty busy. For the first few days we entertained the President of the Federated States of Micronesia – President Manny Mori. It’s not often we Merchant Marine officers get to entertain a head of state. Of course the US Ambassador, Miriam Hughes, was also with us for much of the first week of our visit. I had the opportunity to meet Ambassador Hughes while in Guam last May. She has quickly become a great supporter and wonderful friend of the Mercy. We were also visited by Rear Admiral Christine Hunter who is the Commander of Navy Medicine West. Admiral Hunter is in charge of all the Navy’s medical facilities in the Pacific. And, last but not least, we are currently hosting Vice Admiral John Bird who is the Commander of the 7th Fleet. Busy times, to say the least!

Chuuk is considered to be one of the top scuba diving locations in the world! I’ve only had the chance to get out diving once this visit. I went out yesterday to dive a reef over at the western part of the lagoon. The coral and marine life is incredible here. The visibility is amazing as well. Many of the crew who scuba dive are finding this to be a rewarding visit.

The beauty of this atoll is sharply contrasted by a failing infrastructure. Mercy’s visit comes as a welcome event for much of the population. Here, as in all of the other places we have visited, the appreciation expressed by the people who come to Mercy for medical care is phenomenal. I had the opportunity to “scrub-in” to watch an eye surgery the other day… A fellow named Rod was having a procedure for a Ptrerygium. This is thickening of the outer coating of the eye (called the conjunctiva) that grows onto the cornea. As the anesthesia was starting to take effect, Rod was getting woozier and all the while thanking us for helping him. Before he went out, he gave a very heartfelt mutter saying, “I wish you guys could just stay here.” The surgery was a success and I was fascinated watching it. All the while looking through a microscope, Dr. Kim Davis used what I think was the world’s smallest scalpel to cut away growth and then stitch the wound closed. I watched in awe through the additional eyepiece. Somehow, I was able to set aside my usual squeamishness for slicing and sewing on a person’s eyeball. Of course, through the microscope, the eye looks about the size of a beach ball. I was startled for a second when I thought I saw a baseball bat come into view. I then realized what I was looking at was only a Q-tip.

We only have a couple more mission days to go. It hardly seems like it was 3 months ago we arrived at our first mission stop in the Philippines. We’ll be wrapping things up soon and then it’s off to Guam.

More to come…


Thursday, August 21, 2008

One More to Go!!

Dear Family & Friends,

As I’m writing this to you, we are just about to cross the Equator headed back to the northern half of our planet. We said our goodbyes to the great folks in Port Moresby three days ago.

As I’m sure you can guess, each mission site is different and successes can be measured in many different ways. Nonetheless, I believe our stop in Papua New Guinea was perhaps our most successful in how we were received by the local population. The people we met were some of the kindest, friendliest, and gave us the warmest of welcomes wherever we went.

Here are just a few of the numbers from the PNG mission:

Total Patients Seen: 25,175 (roughly 10% of the population!)
Surgeries Performed: 346 (including 73 by Operation Smile)
Bio-Medical Repairs: $640,300 worth of equipment bought back into operation.
Training & Education: 1,953 Contact Hours.
Veterinary: 982 Animals seen & treated.

Additionally our engineering teams of U.S. Navy Seabees, Royal Australian Engineers, and Indian Army Engineers completed nine construction projects. We constructed two 1,550 square foot medical clinics and renovated seven other rural clinics.

I’m also happy to report our Australian hiker friend, Ms. Debra Paver, departed Mercy a few days before we left. She was headed back to Melbourne with her family and looks to make a full recovery. Her story got a lot of press in Melbourne as well as throughout Australia.

So we are now down to our last mission! We will soon be at the island of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia. With this magnificent crew we have aboard, I’m confident this mission will be as successful as the rest!

More to come…


Sunday, August 10, 2008

I’m on a WHAT?!

Dear Family & Friends,

Some days you just seem to be in the right place at the right time. At least for our new friend Debra Paver, the USNS Mercy was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. This wonderful story started out on Friday morning when we received a call from the US Embassy – who had just received a call from the Australian Embassy - asking for our assistance. It seems an Australian citizen was hiking the Kokoda Trail and had taken seriously ill. Debra, an attorney from the Melbourne area, was suffering from hyponatremia which is low sodium levels. She had been unconscious (essentially in a coma) for over a day. My doctor friends here tell me this low sodium thing can be very very bad. Funny, I always thought you were supposed to avoid too much salt? Pardon me for a moment, dear readers, while I head off to the vending machine for a bag of potato chips.

OK - Back to my story… It was not the best flying conditions and the local air ambulance helicopter did not have the right electronics to attempt the rescue. Our aviation detachment looked over the flight and was confident it could be carried out safely. Our helicopters are newer with better avionics; however, it would not be easy. The visibility was far from ideal and the flight would take them above 7000 feet into the Owen Stanley mountain range. The flight was meticulously planned and flawlessly flown by Lieutenant Beth Dassler from HSC-21. The hiking group had found a small clearing for the helicopter to land (see photo). It was a tight fit but Beth was able to hit a bull’s-eye setting the chopper down in center of the clearing. Debra was loaded aboard and the helo took off for the 25-minute flight back to the ship.

By the time Debra arrived at the ship, her condition was critical. We got her to CASREC where the medical teams commenced to stabilize her. She was put on a breathing tube and admitted to ICU so her blood chemistry could be monitored and adjusted. The doctors here were telling me her condition was very touch-and-go that night! By morning, Debra’s sodium levels had improved and she was taken off the breathing machine. When she woke up, Debra had no recollection of the last 24-hours let alone the helicopter flight or her coming aboard Mercy. Naturally she asked the inevitable question, “Where am I?”

I’m sure you can imagine the look on her face when the nurses told her, “You’re on a US Navy Hospital Ship.”

“I’m on a WHAT?! (Debra get’s the Mercy’s “one-liner” of the month award) I just happened to be down in ICU about this time and peeked in on her. The nurses were showing Debra a picture of Mercy – she kept shaking her head back and forth with a look of disbelief on her face.

When you think about it, Debra is pretty darn lucky! There was not another medical facility anywhere in the region with the capabilities to save her life. Somehow the stars and the galaxies had lined up to put Mercy at the right place and at the right time. I’m happy to report Debra is doing much better now. Her family arrived in Port Moresby today from Melbourne. I was honored to be able to escort them down to ICU. Debra’s mother was overjoyed when she saw her – especially to see her smiling and all the tubes and thingies removed. Looks like she will make a full recovery and we’ll be sending her home in a few days.

While I was writing this post, I made an interesting discovery about our new friend Debra Paver. She belongs to an organization called Trekking for a Life Free of Pain. This wonderful organization works to find a cure for EB (or Epidermolysis Bullosa). EB is a terrible and rare genetic skin disease which affects about 500, 000 people worldwide. Debra’s hike up the Kokoda Trail was to raise money for this worthwhile charity. So, like the crewmembers of USNS Mercy, Debra is also a humanitarian. Who knows – maybe…just maybe…this was why Mercy happened to be here on this day.

More to come…


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

If it’s Wednesday…it must be Port Moresby

Dear Family & Friends,

Here we are at our next-to-the-last mission stop – Papua New Guinea (PNG). For you geography buffs, the island (the world’s second largest) of New Guinea sits just north of the continent of Australia. The western half of this huge island is part of Indonesia. The eastern half is the independent country of Papua New Guinea. We are presently anchored in the harbor at Port Moresby on the southern part of the island.

Getting here from Darwin was interesting because it required passing through the Torres Straits. This can be a tricky transit (about 8 hours) for a ship the size of Mercy. There are some really shallow areas you need to navigate in and around. A lot of history in these waters… The Torres Straits were transited by Captain William Bligh after he was set adrift by the mutineers from HMS Bounty. Bligh sailed for 6-weeks from a spot near Tonga over 3800 miles in a 23 foot open boat –finally reaching the Dutch settlement at Kupang on the western side of the island of Timor (not far from our last mission site). Once you reach the eastern side of the Torres Straits you are in the Coral Sea. During WWII, Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher led the carriers Yorktown and Lexington into these waters and turned back the Japanese invasion force headed for Port Moresby.

Things are kicking off well here in PNG. We’re having a bit of difficulty with the winds in this harbor - kicking up between 25-35 knots daily. This is making boat ops difficult getting our people ashore and the patients to the ship. Fortunately, there is a large coral reef that protects the entrance of the harbor which keeps the sea swells down. I’m sure we’ll be safe.

We have received very warm receptions in all of mission sites. Nonetheless, the reception here in PNG is extraordinary! These people are just so friendly and so very receptive to our visit. Everyone aboard feels it. I think this is going to be one of our best missions yet!

Oh yes… Yesterday was my wife Pamela’s Birthday! Happy Birthday Honey!!

More to come…