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.