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…


Thursday, July 31, 2008

Goodbye Dili – Hello Darwin

Dear Family & Friends,

At first I thought this Blogging thing was going to easy. It’s not! When you are as busy as I am, it is often very difficult to sit at the computer and get the work done. There is so much happening here, it’s never difficult to find a topic. The difficult part is finding the right story to share with you all. That – and, of course – finding the time to actually write it. At least to not having the writing interfere with my day-job.

We departed Dili, Timor-Leste last Monday and just wrapped up a brief logistics/liberty stop in Darwin, Australia. I’m starting to have great hope for the country of Timor-Leste. It still has a long way to go; however, is has also come a long way from it’s beginnings in 1999. I can also attest to a significant improvement since my last visit in 2006. The violence that has shaken this country is down considerably over the last few years. Make no mistake about it…there are still some old grudges and perhaps a few scores to settle. Nonetheless, there is also a real desire in the hearts of the people I met that the past can somehow be put behind them. There is also hope for a better future – a knowing that it is more important to look forward then looking back.

I was able to take a couple of helicopter flights to visit a few of our MEDCAP sights. The countryside of this small nation is stunningly beautiful with a terrain much like the Coastal Ranges of northern California. The weather was warm but not oppressively humid. The people were very friendly and receptive.

A few of the numbers for this visit:

9846 patients
270 surgeries
1198 dental patients
3892 eyeglasses provided
$298,509 value of biomedical repair
2 major engineering projects
523 animals treated

More important then the numbers we rack-up, are the impressions we leave when Mercy sails away. Our multi-national and multi-organizational crew will, I hope, leave the people of Timor-Leste the knowledge that the world cares about them and their future.

On another note… It was a wonderful 5-day visit to Darwin. Just what the doctor (so to speak) ordered. The crew had a much needed rest and a chance to unwind. We again changed out a whole bunch of reservists and NGO personnel. Many new shipmates aboard. The process begins again. Next stop is Papua New Guinea.
One final note: I would like to wish both my good friends Vicki & Ron a very happy 50th birthday!

More to come…


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who We Are – Project HOPE

Dear Family & Friends,

Of the many partnerships we have fashioned over the course of this voyage, there is one partner who has been with us since the beginning. I’m speaking, of course, of the great folks at Project HOPE. These wonderful volunteers, from all walks of life, first joined Team Mercy during the 2005 Tsunami Relief effort. They also joined our sistership, USNS Comfort, during the relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina and participated in Mercy’s 2006 Humanitarian Assistance mission. Last year, more HOPE volunteers embarked on USS Peleliu for Pacific Partnership 07 and also for Comfort’s Humanitarian mission to Central America. Today, Project HOPE is still a major player in Pacific Partnership 08 and is remembered as the NGO who “opened-the-door” for all other organizations to participate on these missions.

Project HOPE - the acronym is for Health Opportunities for People Everywhere – was the brainchild of Doctor William B. Walsh. In 1958, Dr. Walsh persuaded President Eisenhower to donate a U.S. Navy hospital ship, the U.S.S. Consolation. The ship was transformed into the S.S. HOPE, and the organization known as Project HOPE was born. On September 22, 1960, the S.S. HOPE set sail from San Francisco bound for Indonesia. The S.S. HOPE was retired in 1974 after completing 11 voyages traveling to Indonesia, Vietnam, Peru, Ecuador, Guinea, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Tunisia, Jamaica, and Brazil. [Above cited from Project HOPE’s website] Project HOPE celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year!

Since it’s founding, the charter of Project HOPE has been to build the fundamentals for long-term sustainable health care in underserved regions around the world. This has dovetailed nicely with Pacific Partnership’s goals to “leave something behind” in the places we visit. During the Tsunami Relief effort of 05, Mercy provided much needed immediate health care in many of the inflicted regions. However, it was also apparent that much of the region’s health care infrastructure had been destroyed. A crash program was started to provide health education services and training to the health care providers who had survived. Today, this important work continues in what we call SMEE – or Subject Matter Expert Exchange. We have provided thousands of contact-hours worth of training and education to local health care workers. Project HOPE has been our partner in the effort to ensure a regions’ health care doesn’t vanish when Mercy weighs anchor.

Typical of the Project HOPE volunteers is my good friend Diane Speranza. Diane is an RN from New York who first served aboard Mercy during Tsunami Relief mission. She again joined Mercy for the 06 Humanitarian Mission as well as Comfort’s mission to South America last year…and now again for Mercy’s Pacific Partnership 08. It’s scary to think she has more time sailing aboard Hospital Ships then I do! In researching this post, I asked Diane why she continues to volunteer: “It puts my life into perspective” she stated. “And gives me something money can’t buy.”

I think Diane speaks for many of us aboard Mercy…why we enjoy doing what we do here. Diane is only one of the many wonderful Project HOPE volunteers working not only aboard Mercy, but in many places around the world. I “hope” this partnership continues for many years to come.

More to come…


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Promotions – Mercy Style

Clockwise from Top Left: LT(jg) Kendall Natter; LCDR Katie O’mara; LT(jg) Mark Ariizumi; Commander Kim Davis.

Dear Family & Friends,

I enjoy shipboard traditions. Some traditions can be rather extravagant: Equator crossing comes to mind as well as breaking the champagne bottle for a ship’s christening. And some can be rather simple: Such as calling a mop a swab or even the tradition of always making a fresh pot of coffee for the oncoming watch. Of course my favorite shipboard traditions are those I get to make-up myself. What I’m talking about is our new tradition for promoting Naval Officers aboard USNS Mercy.

A promotion is a critical juncture in any military officer’s career. It’s both a recognition for what has been accomplished, as well as an endorsement for future expectations. For a Naval officer, a promotion while aboard a ship will always be memorable.

This all started a few months ago when then Ensign Kendall Natter, one of our nurses, received her promotion to Lieutenant, Junior Grade. Kendall is from a Navy family and is the daughter of a retired Admiral. She asked if it might be possible to hold her promotion on Mercy’s bridge. I was more then happy to grant her request. The morning of the promotion, the entourage arrived and asked me where I thought the best place for the oath to be administered. For me, the logical place was next to the ship’s wheel. Kendall stepped into place for the oath - which was about to be administered by the Director of Nursing, Commander Maryann Mattonen – and raised her right hand. This was when I noticed something was missing… So I shouted, “Kendall, put your left hand on the wheel!” It was just the right touch for a perfect promotion ceremony. The former Ensign Natter walked away Lieutenant (j.g.) Natter in what I’m sure is the first of many promotions to come.

Since that day, three other officers have asked for the same promotion ceremony. One of our Pediatricians, Lieutenant Kathleen O’mara was promoted to Lieutenant Commander; Ophthalmologist, Lieutenant Commander Kim Davis was promoted to Commander; and another nurse, Ensign Mark Ariizumi, was promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade. I hope all these promotions will be remembered for each of these individuals as their most memorable. They are certainly well deserved!

More to come…


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dili, Timor Leste

Dear Family & Friends,

Here we are in Timor Leste. If there was ever a country in need of a ship like Mercy, this is it! One of the newest countries to join the United Nations (in 2002), it is also one of the poorest in the world today with an average per capita GDP of only $2500. The island of Timor is divided roughly in half with West Timor a part of Indonesia and the eastern half its own independent country. It is actually a beautiful island with a very moderate climate this time of year. This is Mercy’s third trip to Timor Leste - a brief stop was made in 2005 and then again in 2006.

To give you an idea of the poverty here, I was told the other day by the American Ambassador that over 90% of the population (roughly 1.1 million) cooks using wood fires. Of course, with the price of oil these days, we could be doing that real soon back in the States. Timor Leste, formally known as East Timor, was a Portuguese colony from about the 16th century until 1975 when it was granted independence. Shortly thereafter, East Timor was invaded and annexed by Indonesia. In 1999, after a particularly brutal occupation, Indonesia caved to international pressure and granted a UN referendum to allow East Timor to vote for independence. The vote for independence was overwhelmingly approved. Unfortunately, extremely violent clashes broke out - mostly instigated by the departing Indonesian military forces. A peacekeeping force led by Australia intervened to restore order.

Nation building is never an easy task. There is a full time UN peacekeeping and police force here now; however, our friends in Australia still have the lead…and doing a heck of a job. There is still a lot of “bad blood” here although I sense a real desire from the people I’ve met to put the past behind them and look to the future. For those of us on Mercy; we’ve got our work cut out for us!

One more thing: I would like to wish my brother Joe a very Happy Birthday!

More to come…


Friday, July 11, 2008

Neptunus Rex

Dear Family & Friends,

We are out of Singapore and headed to East Timor – now called Timor Leste - which, in fact, translates to Timor East. To get here it was necessary to cross the Equator. For those of you who understand a sailor’s life, you know what that means! Yes, friends, it was time again to cleanse the ship of all slimy pollywogs!! For those of you not in the know, to a sailor there are two types of people: those who have been across the Equator aboard a ship – Shellbacks…and those who have not – Pollywogs. When you cross the line the shellbacks all get together and give the pollywogs a little…err…well… I guess you could call it an “initiation.”

King Neptune, Davy Jones, and the royal court arrived on board Wednesday morning. All the slimy and scurvy pollywogs were mustered in Causality Receiving (CASREC) to prepare them for this time-honored ritual. When they got to the flight deck, their challenges awaited them. They must prove themselves worthy to be welcomed into Neptune’s royal domain. This mostly consists of being sprayed with hoses, dunked into tubs of water, and crawling around being forced to answer ridiculous nautical questions. Once these “challenges” were complete, the wogs were presented to good King Neptune (actually, one of the crew dressed up to look like Neptune) and the royal court. There, they were sworn in as faithful and trusty shellbacks.

Of course this was all in fun. When I went through this back at the academy they used to make you crawl across the deck while everyone swatted you on the butt with a chunk of fire hose. Can’t do that kind of stuff anymore. We’re a much kinder and gentler bunch of sailors these days (Kumbaya). Nonetheless, I had the honor of welcoming over 400 new and trusty shellbacks.

More to come…


Monday, July 7, 2008


Dear Family & Friends,

Sorry for the delay getting the latest post out to you all. Even the most devoted blogger disserves a hiatus from time to time. No better place to take a break then Singapore. I think everyone enjoyed their brief respite here – who wouldn’t? This city (country) has so much to offer. Great shopping and restaurants as well as a night life that is second to none.

We said goodbye to just about 120 of our shipmates and welcomed aboard about the same number of new folks. These are mostly reservist, NGO, and partner nation individuals. These people are only assigned for specific segments of our voyage. For instance, the reservists all hold down full time civilian jobs at various medical centers around the country. Normally, a reservist being called to active duty is often a hardship for the person to undergo – not with the folks assigned to Mercy. Almost every one of the reservists who departed this week expressed how much they enjoyed their time aboard and wished they could have stayed longer. Matter-of-fact, several managed to get their deployments extended to participate in the next mission segment.

We arrived in Singapore on Wednesday and stayed through today (Monday). This allowed us to be in port for the 4th of July weekend. The transit through the Singapore Straits up to the Sembawang port terminal is always a challenge…even more so for a ship the size of Mercy. Next to Gibraltar, Singapore is one of the most heavily transited shipping routes in the world. Our departure this afternoon was mostly uneventful; we have safely cleared the straits and are now en route to our next mission stop in Dili, Temor Leste.

As much as I enjoy Singapore, it feels good to be back at sea. Phase III of our mission is ahead of us. I feel the ship is really in its rhythm. The medical folks are itching to get back to work and I know the folks in Dili are looking forward to our visit. One minor detail is ahead of us before we reach our destination… We’ll be crossing the equator the day after tomorrow. I’m thinking King Neptune might be paying us a visit. Hmmm… Pity the poor Wogs!

More to come…


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Last Day in Nha Trang

Dear Family & Friends,

It’s our last day here in Nha Trang and we are wrapping things up. After a really nice closing ceremony this morning we weighed anchor and now it is on to Singapore for a little break. We saw a lot of people here in Vietnam. More importantly, we were able to make a great many friends with the local medical professionals and the government officials we worked with. I believe we have taken another step (a big step) in normalizing the relations between our two countries. Of course, this is what Mercy does so well – we open doors, we make friends, and we build partnerships.

A few of the numbers:

Total Patients Seen: 11,576
Surgeries Performed Aboard: 234
Engineering projects were held at 5 different locations (3 local clinics; 1 rehab/education center; and 1 orphanage).
Our Bio-Med technicians were able to repair and bring back into operation over $300,000 worth of medical equipment at various clinics.

None of this could happen without the hard work of those who sail aboard Mercy. This crew – from so many different specialties; different originations; as well as different countries – are really something special. All of our differences aside, what everyone has in common is how they view the people we come to treat. If you are a patient coming to Mercy (or one of Mercy’s medical outreach sights) you will immediately realize how the people of Mercy will see your life as something that has value. And isn’t this all anyone really wants from a friend or a partner?

I think I can speak for everyone aboard that we are all very much looking forward to Singapore. It’ll be nice to have a break and recharge batteries. A lot more left to do!

More to come…


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Who We Are – CIVMARs

Dear Family & Friends,

Yes… That really is me standing next to 5 of the contestants from the Miss Universe pageant. This year’s event is being held in Nha Trang and these young ladies were kind enough to visit Mercy. They were aboard for several hours to eat lunch, chat with the crew, and visit with several of the patients. Yea, I know folks… It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it!

For the last 28 years, I have been proud to belong to a cadre of some of the finest seafarers in the world – the Civil Service Mariners (CIVMARs) of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC). CIVMARs are government employed Merchant Marine officers and seamen who operate 45 of the navy’s specialized auxiliary vessels. The ships we sail are designated with the prefix USNS (for United States Naval Ship) as opposed to the USS prefix of the regular commissioned ships of the US Navy.

Most of the ships we operate are supply vessels (fuel, stores, and ammunition) in which the delivery method is what is know as Underway Replenishment (UNREP). In this process, we will rendezvous with the warships out at sea and conduct refuelings and reprovisionings while steaming about 180 feet apart. It’s an exciting job and the CIVMARs are some of the best in the world at it!

Our ship’s officers come from a variety of places. Many are graduates (like myself) from one of the 6 Maritime Academies around the country. Some are ex-Navy and some have worked their way “up the hawsepipe” (e.g. come up through the ranks to earn their officer’s license). Our unlicensed crews are just a varied. Again, many are prior navy while others are home grown having started in entry level positions and worked their way up.

With almost a thousand people currently aboard Mercy, it is humbling to think that only 67 CIVMARs are here to operate “the ship” segment of this hospital ship. It’s the CIVMARs who navigate and maneuver the ship to each of our mission locations. We keep the engines going; operate the boats to and from the beach; keep the lights and air conditioning running; as well as noble task of transforming a bunch of lubberly doctors and nurses into real salty seadogs. <>

While the mission’s focus is medical, I can take pride in knowing this mission would never happen if it were not for the CIVMARs bringing this ship to the places we visit.

More to come…


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Nha Trang

Dear Family & Friends,

We were warmly welcomed when we arrived in Nha Trang, Vietnam. We dropped anchor Thursday morning just between Hon Tre Island and the city’s beautiful shoreline. Commodore Kearns, Captain Rice, and I attended the opening ceremony later that morning. At the ceremony were dozens of local and regional government and health officials. With the exception of the sweltering heat, it could not have been any nicer.

For this posting I would like give you an idea of how we operate our missions. There are 6 programs we offer to each of the host countries we visit. These are: 1) On-board surgical, medical, and diagnostic care; 2) Medical and Dental Civil Assistance Projects; 3) Engineering Civil Assistance Projects; 4) Veterinary Civil Assistance Projects; 5) Subject Matter Expert Exchange; and 6) Public Relations. Here in Vietnam we are doing all but the Veterinary program.

On-Board Surgical, Medical, and Diagnostic Care. The real value of a ship like Mercy is that she is a large fully equipped hospital wrapped-up in a ship. With her 12 operating rooms, blood bank, CT scanner, recovery and ICU wards, Mercy brings the capabilities of a major hospital to anyplace we can drop an anchor. We expect to do about 300 surgeries here in Vietnam – about a third of them will be cleft lip repairs by Operation Smile. We will also do a number of cataract surgeries, hysterectomies, tumor removals, and juvenile hernias…and, of course, the ever popular laparoscopic cholecystectomy. This last little jewel is the surgery formally known as “having your gallbladder out.”

Medical and Dental Civil Assistance Project s are often referred to as MEDCAPs and DENCAPs. These programs are how we reach the largest numbers of people. We usually run about two MEDCAP/DENCAPs each day. Each of these consists of between 35 to 50 personnel. Every morning these teams depart the vessel and head out to predetermined sights – usually a school or a local clinic. Free medical care is offered in the form of internal and family medicine, pediatric care, optometry, pharmacy, and simple dental procedures (usually extractions). These sights will usually be able to treat about 500 people per day. We will also send ashore a number of preventive medicine experts to advise local officials on such issues as water quality and insect abatement.

Engineering Civil Assistance Projects (ENCAPs) are performed by our Seabees. They work refurbishing schools and neighborhood medical clinics. We have 6 different projects going on here in Vietnam. This year, we are lucky to have aboard a group of Australian Engineers (what they call their Seabees) working side-by-side with our folks.

Veterinary Civil Assistance Projects (VETCAPs). Mercy has aboard a number of veterinarians and veterinary techs to assist local farmers with livestock. Vietnam did not request veterinary assistance during Mercy’s visit. Nonetheless, we did do a great deal of vet work while in the Philippines.

Subject Matter Expert Exchange (SMEE). One of the goals of Pacific Partnership is, of course, to build partnerships. Sharing education and experiences is one of the most beneficial tools to accomplish this. We do this in several ways – the most common is to send medical professionals out to local clinics and hospitals to conduct training and education for local health providers. Mercy also has embarked a number of biomedical equipment techs who help repair various medical gadgets and train local operators.

Community Relations. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this mission is not only bringing medial care but also bringing a little bit of America to the people we encounter. This is done with various community relations (COMREL) projects. These range from sporting events with locals (soccer is the most popular) to volunteers going out a painting a school or orphanage. The biggest hit, by far, is the Pacific Fleet Band (Yes – we have a band). This group always draws a crowd when they play at various local venues.

I was out the day before yesterday and got to tour a number of our outreach sights. Tomorrow I’ll be going out again with Captain Jim Rice. It is absolutely amazing to watch these wonderful shipmates in action, as well as watching the tremendous impact they have with the people we meet.

More to come…


Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Dear Family & Friends,

Getting a Merchant Marine officer to put on the “Choker” style Dress White uniform is kind of like giving your cat a bath. Especially to a stinky old tanker captain like myself. Nevertheless, I will gladly make the exception when given an opportunity to represent USNS Mercy and participate in a wreath laying ceremony at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial. What an incredible day we had yesterday! Commodore Kearns, Captain Rice, and I (along with a number of Mercy’s crew) had the honor of visiting this beautiful resting place of over 17,000 American servicemen who gave their lives liberating the Philippines during WWII. At the monument is a circle of stone walls engraved with over 37,000 names of those who are missing from the Pacific campaign. Included are the names of the 5 Sullivan brothers who were lost aboard USS Juneau during the battle of Guadalcanal. When you say “seventeen thousand” the number numbs your mind - until you actually see all those individual markers perfectly aligned throughout the cemetery. It is particularly sobering to think that most of these were boys between the ages of 18 to 21. If you ever get the chance to visit Manila, I highly recommend you take the opportunity the visit this place of honor. It’s well worth it!

We arrived in Manila (Pearl of the Orient) Sunday afternoon. I got to get out in town for a little bit. We were mostly busy. In addition to the ceremony, Mercy hosted a reception Monday night for a whole bunch of dignitaries. Our old friend Ambassador Kenny came aboard to wish us well and say goodbye. Good party and good times were had by all!

Our stay in Manila was much to short. We departed this afternoon and are now on our way to Nha Trang, Vietnam. We will rendezvous with USNS Tippecanoe tomorrow for a little gas – about 600,000 gallons (you wouldn’t like the mileage on this ride). We’ll be there Thursday morning! We’re ready to begin phase II of this little sojourn.

More to come…


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Farewell Cotabato

Dear Family & Friends,

We said goodbye to Cotabato on Thursday – next stop is Manila for a logistics stop and short break. The passage through the inland waters of the Philippines is just amazingly beautiful. While most of the medical staff is getting some rest, I’m spending a lot of time on the bridge. The navigation is pretty straight forward. There are several narrows that require a little extra attention; however, the weather has been fantastic so the transit has been mostly routine. What does make this interesting is the large number of small fishing (banka) boats scattered throughout these island’s waters. I mean, we have seen literally thousands of them. I have no idea what divine providence makes the fish want to hide out directly along the ship’s track…and, of course, the fishing boats will always be where the fish are. Makes things interesting…

The first leg of our transit was through the Basilan Strait – between the Zamboanga Peninsula and Basilan Island – which took us into the Sulu Sea. From there we went north and entered the Tanon Strait which lies between the islands of Negros and Cebu. Our destination was Calibayog City on the western side of the island of Samar.

We’re doing something a little different this year in order to reach a larger number of people in this region. While Mercy was in Cotabato, a “Fly-Away” team of medical and dental personnel – along with a number of Seabees - were transported by a C-130 aircraft to Samar. This was a great success! This air mission enabled us expand our presence beyond Mindanao. We dropped anchor Saturday morning just off the coast of Calibayog City to pick up our folks who have been working there for the last two weeks. After about 5-hours sitting on the hook – and all our folks aboard – we got underway for the run up to Manila.

We entered the San Bernardino Straits in the early evening (I know these waters quite well) and will be in Manila tomorrow morning. This short break is going to help everyone recharge so we can go at it again.

Here are just a few numbers from our stay in the Southern Philippines:
1) Total Patients Seen/Treated – 26,383 (!!)
2) Patients Seen Aboard Ship – 961
3) Surgeries Performed – 312
And this was only our first mission site. We have 4 more to go!

More to come…


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Helicopter Incident

Dear Family and Friends,

I’m sure many of you have seen the news about the shooting at one of our helicopters. Day before yesterday, one of our helos made a startling discovery after it returned to Mercy bringing back a group of folks from a medical outreach sight. After landing on deck, the maintenance team noticed hydraulic fluid leaking from the tail rotor section. Upon further inspection, a bullet hole was discovered in the cowling below the rotor. It was most likely fired from a rifle while the helicopter was traveling over land. No one was injured and the pilot didn’t know he had been shot at, much less hit, all during the flight.

As the press reports stated, we did temporally “suspend operations.” I happy to report that today we are back to completing all mission objectives.

We’re not sure who is responsible for this incident. We are working closely Philippine authorities to find out who perpetuated this act. The mood of the crew is: We will not be intimidated! Everyone aboard believes in this mission and understands the needs of the people we are working to help. An overwhelming majority of the population here supports our efforts. Now is not the time to turn-tail just because someone decided to take a few pot shots at us.

I don’t wish to sound cavalier about what has happened. Trust me when I tell you, everyone is deeply concerned about what has happened and is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of our people working ashore and aboard. Nonetheless, you can never totally eliminate risk when doing a mission like this – you can only manage it the best you can.

Since the beginning of history, there have been those who have used violence, or the threat of violence, as a means to further some political agenda. However, only a thug would attack a hospital ship or, in this case, a transport to and from a hospital ship. We will continue to take measures to protect our people; and we will not be driven away by some coward who believes he can change our minds by threatening us. We will complete this mission!

More to come…


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why We Do This

Dear Family & Friends,

I am often asked the question: Why is Mercy on this humanitarian deployment? There are many reasons to do a mission like this. For me, the best reason is because - we can. We are, after all, the United States. As such, we have the means to do a mission like this and therefore we should. What’s the point of having such a magnificent platform as USNS Mercy if you’re not going to use her? Nonetheless, I’m sure there are many who see the world pragmatically and ask: What is the “return-on-investment” to the American taxpayers who funded this mission? My own pragmatic answer to this question is that “By doing humanitarian missions, we are better prepared for disaster relief missions.” Allow me to explain…

USNS Mercy, and her sistership USNS Comfort, were built for the purpose of Combat Trauma & Life Support. They were conceived and designed at the height of the Cold War as a means to care for large numbers of causalities in some epic battle. Although called to several conflicts, our hospital ships (thankfully) have never been required to do the actual mission they were designed for. In the past, Mercy and Comfort were never really given serious consideration as disaster relief responders. Although superb trauma platforms, these hospital ships could never hope to arrive to some disaster in time for what’s know in medical parlance as “the golden hour.” Therefore, these ships sat idle (Mercy in San Diego/Comfort in Baltimore) for many years waiting for a specific mission we hoped would never happen. This all changed on December 26th 2004.

The massive earthquake which struck off the coast of Sumatra generated a tsunami that ripped a path of destruction across the Indian Ocean. An estimated quarter of a million people were killed while several million were left homeless. The US Navy immediately responded by sending the Aircraft Carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and the Amphibious Assault Ship USS Essex. Then, on January 1st 2005, the USNS Mercy departed San Diego and headed for the stricken region. It was an interesting decision to send Mercy. After all, Mercy is a trauma platform and by the time she arrived there wouldn’t be many trauma cases. The work would be primarily clinical – and Mercy was never envisioned as a clinic - to supplement the local medical infrastructure destroyed by the tsunami. Nonetheless, some really bright people began to figure out how to use this vessel in ways never before imagined by the folks who designed and built her.

One of the most innovative ideas came when then CNO Admiral Vern Clark, called the CEO of Project HOPE Dr. John Howe, and asked if HOPE would like to join Mercy on this relief mission. Dr. Howe could not have been more enthusiastic. This formed an important partnership and broke down a lot of existing paradigms. Our hospital ships could directly team up with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in disaster relief efforts. Many of these organizations have extensive experience working in various regions around the world. They also can provide health and medical professionals – many of whom would already be working in the stricken areas when the hospital ship arrived.

Building on the foundation of the 2005 Tsunami mission, Mercy departed on a humanitarian mission in April of 2006. Many lessons from the 2005 mission were applied and a significant number of minor alterations were made to Mercy’s configuration and supply allowance. We began to realize that… If the lessons from a disaster relief mission could improve a humanitarian assistance mission; then, the lessons learned from a humanitarian mission would most certainly improve future disaster relief missions.

As we continue to do these humanitarian missions, Mercy is no longer just a trauma platform. She is now a fully functional, fully equipped, multi-capable, and state-of-the-art hospital that can go almost anywhere in the world – anytime she is needed! As many of you know, I was born and raised in Napa, California…about 50-miles north of San Francisco. When you’re from the Bay Area, “disaster preparedness” is practically embedded in your DNA. Being the pragmatic guy that I am, it only makes since to keep a ship like USNS Mercy ready for whatever the next disaster might be.

More to come…


Sunday, June 8, 2008

…and then a miracle happens!

Dear Family & Friends,

The following was posted in the comments by ISC Shawn Cohen - one of our many outstanding Chief Petty Officers embarked aboard Mercy. It is such a great story I thought I should move it to the main postings. So please welcome guest blogger Chief Cohen:

More to come…



Friends and Family,

Let me take a moment of your time to tell you about my day. A few minutes ago a Marine who works for me asked me if we would get any medals or awards for this deployment, such as the Humanitarian Service Medal. I told him that we would not be eligible for the HSM, but some of us might receive something like a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal or perhaps a Flag Letter of Commendation. Then I told the Sergeant that I had already received something much better than any medal they could give me. I explained how a short time ago I had stopped into the Physical Therapy room for an adjustment since I hurt my neck in a fall yesterday (not serious, getting better thanks for asking.) While I was there I saw a 15-year-old Filipino boy named Romeo. I thought he was younger than that because he is fairly small for his age. I first saw Romeo there yesterday when they wheeled him in on a wheelchair. Romeo was very excited to be in a wheelchair because for the first time in years he was able to move around on his own without having to depend on other people. When Romeo was nine-years-old he was injured in a bomb blast when his village in the Republic of the Philippines was caught up in fighting between rival factions. His legs were so badly burned in the blast that scar tissue prevented him from even straightening his leg. His legs have atrophied so much that they are smaller around than my arms. For the last six years he has been unable to walk, and his father has carried him around. When not carried, he crawls around on his hands. He is totally dependent on family members to take care of him.

As Romeo gets older, he is getting too big for his father to carry around. His father is smaller than I am, and I couldn’t imagine carrying him around all day. When his family heard that our hospital ship, USNS MERCY, was coming to Mindanao they asked if we could help. His case was accepted, and our team of doctors decided to cut away the scar tissue that bound Romeo’s leg like webbing and replace it with a large skin graft taken from his back. His father asked one of our surgeons, Commander Todd, if the boy would ever be able to ride his bicycle again. Dr. Todd said there was a remote chance he may one day be able to ride a bike - and perhaps even stand on his own – although the boy would probably never walk more than a few steps.

Today, a few days after his surgery, I saw Romeo walk on crutches for the first time since the explosion. He was surrounded by family members and his doctors - Commander Todd, Commander Tan, Commander Douglas (his plastic Surgeon), Captain Goldberg (his physical therapist) and a Navy journalist who captured the moment on video. We all watched as he climbed up on the exercise bike and rode like he was competing in the Tour de France! His father and sister watched in amazement with tears streaming down their cheeks. This is a boy who now has a chance to do things on his own. To go to school, work, play with friends, grow up and raise a family. His father shook our hands and hugged us all, then looked into my eyes and said “Salamat Po” (a sincere thank you.) I would have traded all my medals for those two words.

So that was my day. How are you all doing?


Shawn Cohen


BTW: I was lucky this morning to have young Romeo walk into my office for a visit. See photo (Romeo is the good look’n one on the left! :-)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Who We Are

Dear Family & Friends,

I am not a professional writer; however, I spent most of last night having what professional writers call “Terror of the Blank Page.” I knew I needed to write something…anything… But what? It was as though the “writing lobe” of my brain went ashore for a couple of beers and left me here on the ship to fend for myself. Come on, Mr. Lobe, it’s time to go to work! Today at lunch I realized the answer was sitting all around me. Aboard this vessel we have so many different people from so many different organizations. There are Civilian Mariners (like myself), Helicopter Pilots, Doctors, Nurses, Seabees, and Veterinarians. We have professionals aboard from partner nations - Australia, Canada, Japan, and the Philippines. So far, this Blog has mostly focused on what we have been doing. Perhaps, dear readers, you would like to know a little about who we are.

Therefore, I think I’ll slightly alter this Blog’s course from time-to-time. I will continue to write about the places we go and the people whose lives we touch. However, every now and then, I will also post the intermittent scrivening to be called: Who We Are. In these posts I hope to highlight the many different people, from many different organizations and professions, which make a humanitarian mission aboard a hospital ship possible. Provided, of course, Mr. Lobe cooperates.

It is day 5 here in Cotabato. Our missions ashore continue with a whole lot of people being seen by our medical providers. Here aboard Mercy, the surgeons are doing some really interesting cases. The crew is getting its rhythm and the missions are running smoother every day.

My thanks to all of you who have left comments to my postings on this Blog. All of them have been very kind and I really do appreciate it!

More to come…


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Operation Smile

Dear Family & Friends,

The name of Mercy’s voyage this year is Pacific Partnership 08. One of our goals is to partner relationships with other nations, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to better the lives of all of us who live in and around the Pacific region. One of the most rewarding of our many partnerships is perhaps the teaming-up of USNS Mercy and the wonderful folks of Operation Smile!

Operation Smile was founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee and his wife Kathleen for the purpose of repairing children’s cleft lips and cleft palates. Volunteers from this suburb organization travel around the world helping children born with these terrible deformities. It really is a lot of fun having them aboard. And watching the outstanding work they do is amazing.

For the last several days our patient receiving area has been filled with the sounds of children. Their facial disfigurements notwithstanding, these are regular children doing regular children type things: Running, jumping, laughing, screaming, yelling, and playing! These kids absolutely touch your heart when you see them. Some of the crew gave out coloring books and crayons (And I haven’t a clew as to why these particular items just happened to be aboard my ship!). This was a big hit and we now have many of these wonderful “works-of-art” posted throughout the vessel.

Over the last four days, The Operation Smile team was able to perform surgery to 54 children. That is 54 lives that have changed for the better. These children now have the chance to have a normal childhood without the shame of this horrible disfigurement. This morning, we said our goodbyes the Op Smile team that joined us here in the Philippines. Other teams will be joining us at our future mission sights. For me, it is such a privilege to be able to play a small part in helping this organization change the lives of children around the world! What could be better then a partnership that makes beautiful children even more beautiful then they already are.

More to come…


Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Human in Humanitarian

Dear Family and Friends,

At tonight’s briefing, Commodore Kearns made a very interesting comment. He said, “For the last several months I have continually used the word humanitarian – as in ‘Mercy’s upcoming humanitarian mission...’ Today I was able to see the human in humanitarian.” He later told me about what he had seen. There was a little girl, an Operation Smile patient for a cleft lip, headed into surgery. On one side of her was a nurse holding the IV bag, on the other side was her father holding her hand. The little girl was obviously scared to death but was being reassured by both the nurse and her father that everything was going to be alright. It was all very human.

What never ceases to amaze me is the courage of the people who come to Mercy. To be boated out to this massive vessel anchored in a harbor. You step aboard to a thousand strangers whose language you don’t speak. You listen to the weird and continuous sounds of a ship’s machinery and ventilation systems. Bizarre foods are being served. Many of these folks are not even used to air conditioning. And as terrifying as this might be; the people come. And in the case of this father, he will trust this ship with his most precious possession - his own child.

I know exactly what the Commodore was feeling. For the last several months I have been wrapped up in the myriad of details necessary to get this ship here. As a professional mariner, I understand all too well the technical requirements of a voyage across the Pacific. As the work piles up, it’s easy to find one skimming over the word humanitarian when using the expression “humanitarian mission.” And then the day comes along when you see a child - born with a terrible deformity – walk aboard your ship. Holding her hand is a father desperately hoping to give this child a normal life. It is all very human.

There really is a human in humanitarian. And it is in our humanity we will find the method of our compassion for others.

More to come…


Friday, May 30, 2008

Cotabato, RP

Dear Family and Friends,

Today, the USNS Mercy is finally a true hospital. For the last several weeks we have had most of the makings of a hospital; doctors, nurses, operating rooms, x-ray machines, etc. However, we have been missing one important item: Patients! After all the work, training, planning, and preparations – finally we are doing what we came to do. We are, at last, treating paitents.

We pulled into Polloc Harbor yesterday morning and dropped the anchor just about a mile from the beach. The city of Cotabato is 10 miles to the south of us as the crow flies. This is a beautiful little harbor. The southern part of Mindanao is close enough to the equator it seldom gets the typhoons which are common in the northern islands like Luzon. The vegetation along the coastline is lush and very dense. Looking through the binoculars, you can see dozens of Nipa huts lining the beach.

Yesterday was devoted primarily to logistics. We moved a whole bunch of material and supplies ashore for our medical outreach programs. Today we were visited by the United States Ambassador to the Philippines, Kristie Kenney. Ambassador Kenney is an old friend of USNS Mercy – she visited us many times during the 2006 mission. It was good to have her aboard once again. I attended the opening ceremony this afternoon. It is obvious the good folks in this region are happy to have us here!

It’s late and it has been a really long day, so I’m going to cut this posting a little short tonight. Exciting times are ahead. The great folks from Operation Smile are aboard! They will be doing a whole slew of surgeries in the next couple of days to repair cleft lips and palates on some really wonderful children. More on this later!

More to come…


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Let’s Get Started!

Dear Family and Friends,

Can’t seem to get to sleep. We will reach our first mission sight tomorrow morning. Mercy rounded the southern tip of Mindanao (southern Philippines) this afternoon. This means we have entered the Celebes Sea and headed north into the Moro Gulf. Our first stop is Cotabato up near the northeastern corner.

The weather over the last few days has been very hot and humid. The sea is dead calm with only a few puffs of wind. We’ve been weaving through a number of Philippine fishing boats – called Banka Boats – since early this morning. We were treated to an absolutely stunning sunset tonight – as only a sunset at sea can be. The decks topside were jammed with folks coming out to watch. Everyone is excited to get this show on the road.

Each one of us has our own reasons for being here. Most of us, me included, asked to come on this mission. For the medical folks aboard, I have come to realize how significant this voyage is. Navy Medicine offers many unique opportunities to medical professionals that would not otherwise be offered in the private sector…a medical career with the prospect of doing something other then working in your typical hospital. Think about it: A voyage aboard a giant floating hospital ship going on a humanitarian mission to far off places in the world. Too cool! This is why so many of these outstanding individuals not only chose a career in medicine; but also chose to wear our country’s uniform as well. I am grateful to be the one taking them where they need to go.

We departed San Diego almost a month ago on May 1st. We have traveled over 7100 miles to get here. It’s time to get started!

More to come…


Saturday, May 24, 2008

On Our Way!

Dear Family and Friends,

We departed Guam this morning and are headed to our first mission stop in Cotabato, Republic of the Philippines. While in Guam we embarked about 250 more medical and engineering persons. This brings our total crew size up to around 850 personnel embarked. Eight hundred and fifty people!! That is incredible to me. My “other” ship – USNS John Ericsson – has a crew of about 85. To think there are now 10 times that number aboard is staggering and more then just a little humbling. This might be a US Navy mission; however, we also have folks embarked from the Army and Air Force as well as the US Public Health Service. Additionally, we have been joined by medical contingents from Canada, Australia, and Japan (with other partner nations soon to join at a later date).

The mission planning work continues. I have attended more meetings in the last 3 months then I care to think about (and I hate going to meetings). Each day it seems there are more emails to read and more memos to write. Training and drills for the crew are a non-stop endeavor to keep everyone safe. And then, of course, there are the usual daily “captain” things that require my attention: Review the navigation; check on impending weather; read and sign the logbook; and submit the myriad of routine reports enjoyed by bureaucrats everywhere.

Two factors keep me going and make this all worthwhile: The first is how important this mission is and what it means to the people we will be seeing at our mission sights. The second reason is the enthusiasm of these 850 wonderful people around me. They are pumped-up and ready to go!

I want you to take a minute and think about something, dear readers. I want you to think about the phrase “Taking my kid to the doctor.” In the United States this is a pretty common expression for a usually common event. Unless, of course, it’s for an emergency - “taking my kid to the doctor” (for a check-up, an earache, or maybe a cold) is a routine and unremarkable part of daily life. We’ll try and fit it in between the grocery shopping and getting the car washed. Now I want you to think about what it would be like if you lived in a place where this event was not routine. What if you couldn’t ‘just’ take your kid to the doctor? Think what it would be like to hear your child coughing and not know if it was just a cold or, perhaps, something worse. Imagine how helpless you would feel if you had no means to ease your child’s suffering from a bad earache?

The USNS Mercy is on her way to give people an opportunity to do something they never in their lives have had the opportunity to do. These people will soon be “taking their kid to the doctor!”

More to come…


Thursday, May 15, 2008

En Route to Guam

Dear Family & Friends,

It is a busy time here aboard Mercy as we continue on to Guam. This will be our last logistics stop before our first mission. We expect to get aboard about 200 additional medical folks who will be flying to the island to meet us. These people will be both from the military as well as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s).

Still no word if we will be going to Myanmar. Although we’ll be ready if called.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this mission is the command structure. It is without a doubt one of the most unusual organizational compositions ever devised. The mission commander is Commodore Bill Kearns (who embarked in Hawaii along with his staff). For the last 6 months or so, he has been deeply involved in the planning of Pacific Partnership - where we are going to go and what we will do when we get there. Bill is a regular naval line officer, a Navy Captain, with a background in Destroyers.

Because we are a hospital ship it is probably a good idea to have someone in charge that went to medical school. I’m very lucky to have aboard as my main colleague Captain Jim Rice. Jim is the Commanding Officer of Mercy’s Medical Treatment Facility. In other words, he runs the hospital. Jim is a Navy Medical Officer – a physician - and general surgeon by training. He and I have rapidly become good friends.

And then, of course, there is me - the skipper of this fine vessel. It is my job to get the ship from one location to another. Jim and I carry on a running joke between us: “Is the ship a hospital or is the hospital a ship?” The correct answer, of course, is: “Both.” It takes each of us to do what we do best in order to make the USNS Mercy work. Jim will tell you he’s not the one you want conning this huge vessel under the Coronado Bridge. And I know you don’t want me taking out your appendix.

So there you have it…A Navy surface line officer; a surgeon; and a civilian tanker captain joining up to form the command element of an extraordinary ship and an even more extraordinary mission. Hard to believe, but it works!

More to come…


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In Memorial

Dear Family & Friends,

I am very saddened to tell you all that we did suffer a tragedy while in Hawaii. One of our shipmates, Petty Officer First Class Jose Peguero, died from an accident while snorkeling off Oahu. It is always difficult to lose a shipmate. It is even more difficult when the shipmate was such a fine individual – a father to two young children - and a dedicated sailor.

His memory was honored last Sunday in a memorial service held aboard Mercy. It was a beautiful ceremony up on the ship’s flight deck attended by almost all hands. Everyone was deeply moved.

Petty Officer Peguero was part of our Seabee detachment. Seabees (from the acronym “CB” meaning Construction Battalion) are the Navy’s builders and engineers. The detachment is aboard to repair and upgrade the hospitals and schools at our mission sites. Petty Officer Peguero was the Assistant Officer-in-Charge (i.e. the number 2 man) of our detachment. His fellow Seabees looked up to him as both a leader and a mentor.

While I didn’t have the chance to know him well, I did get the opportunity to meet Petty Officer Peguero when he reported aboard. What I remember most was his enthusiasm for this mission! He couldn’t wait to put his construction skills to work as part of the overall endeavor of Mercy’s humanitarian mission. He sincerely believed in this mission and his passion was infectious to those around him.

I don’t know why God chose this time to take Jose Peguero from us - with so much to yet to do. What I do know is that he was my shipmate and therefore my brother. Our thought and prayers are with his family.

More to come…


Monday, May 12, 2008

Pearl Harbor

Dear Family & Friends,

My apologies for the delay in getting another blog post to you all. It has been a busy time here aboard Mercy. Our scheduled four day stop in Pearl Harbor was cut to a two day stop in order to get us headed west sooner. I’m sure that many of you are asking the question, “With what has happened in Myanmar, will USNS Mercy be going to help?” As of right now, I have to say, “I just don’t know.” With this early departure from Hawaii, the powers-that-be are certainly positioning us to do that – provided, of course, the government of Myanmar would let us in. Too many unknowns at this time to know what the outcome might be.

There is no question in my mind that Mercy could provide a lot of help to those poor people who suffered (and are still suffering) from that terrible storm. Personally, I would like to go. In the meantime we will continue on with our present mission and wait and see how the situation in Myanmar plays out.

Our brief stop in Pearl Harbor was a busy one. Trying to cram four days of work into two days is always a challenge. There were plenty of VIPs requesting tours. Additional supplies, equipment, and personnel also needed to be loaded aboard. I did get a chance to get away in the evenings to enjoy Honolulu for a few hours. Got to see a few old friends as well.

One interesting note… When you are forced to leave early from a port like Hawaii, it is often expected to see a modicum of disappointment in the crew. Not this bunch! Everyone is pumped up to get this mission started.

I just came down from the bridge a minute ago to finish this posting. The Southern Cross is out (one of my favorite constellations). This means we are getting into southern latitudes. The weather has certainly warmed up. Many of the crew enjoyed a pair of albatrosses circling the ship this afternoon hunting the flying fish as the ship’s wake chased them out of the water. Always a spectacular sight!

More to come!


Sunday, May 4, 2008

USNS Mercy - And I get to do it again!

Dear Family & Friends,

Hospital Ship USNS Mercy is back underway for another humanitarian mission. Many of you remember my journal from the 2006 mission – you have all again been included in my mailing list. Some of you are newly added and I hope you enjoy these writings as much as I enjoy bringing them to you. What is different about this year’s writings is that everything is being posted on my very own blog. This can be found at:

This looks to be a great trip. Mercy got underway from San Diego last Thursday. We are presently on our way to Pearl Harbor for a brief stop and then it’s off to the Western Pacific. Our mission this year is called Pacific Partnership 08. We have stops scheduled for the Philippines, Viet Nam, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Federated States of Micronesia. What’s different about this mission from the 2006 mission is we are visiting fewer ports; however, we will be making longer stays in the ports we do visit. This is to provide longer post-operative care for the patients and allow our medical staff to take on more challenging cases.

I still can’t believe I’m so lucky to be able to do this again. The mission in 2006 was, without a doubt, the highlight of my career. To be the skipper of a hospital ship – going on a humanitarian mission to provide free medical care to people in need – is beyond anything I ever dreamed when I decided on the profession as a Merchant Marine officer over 30-years ago.

I reported aboard Mercy about the middle of March having spent much of 2007 back on the Fleet Oiler USNS John Ericsson. It was a whirlwind of activities to prepare the ship for this voyage. It was a little easier for me this time…my experience from the ‘06 mission gave me a much better understanding of what would be needed. Nevertheless, the complexity of these missions makes mission planning a challenging task regardless of how much you know or how much you think you know. But we did it!

We have a great ship and a great crew and I believe we are going to have a great mission ahead of us. Right now we are just about half-way to Hawaii. Training for all hands is on-going and will continue right up to our first mission stop. There will be plenty to write about in the weeks ahead. Keep with me because there is…

More to come.