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Navy hospital ship Comfort begins 5-month mission

Navy hospital ship Comfort begins 5-month mission

By Dianna Cahn
The Virginian-Pilot
© April 2, 2015
NORFOLK

The Navy hospital ship Comfort got under way Wednesday from Norfolk Naval Station on its first deployment in four years and in the wake of a significant last-minute leadership change.

On Monday, the ship’s hospital commander was removed. Her replacement, Capt. Christine Sears, arrived Tuesday.

For Nataliya Chung, whose husband is a Navy surgeon, that news was disheartening. Chung wondered how much confidence the crew could have in its new leader as they embark on a humanitarian mission to Central and South America.

But then Chung remembered the pictures her husband, Thomas, a commander, brought back from a humanitarian deployment in 2011 on another hospital ship: Photographs of children deformed by cleft palates and then, after surgery, their smiles broad and beautiful. And she thought about a letter from the mother of a 9-year-old, thanking her husband for her son’s transformation. The boy had been lonely and isolated, and now he had friends – and hope.

“It was definitely life-changing – for them and for us,” she said.

Chung said she was encouraged after visiting the ship Tuesday.

“I felt like there was such a team spirit I didn’t see before,” she said. “I wonder if it had to do with the change? Or maybe it has to do with the mission.”

The Comfort has been preparing for the five-month deployment, called Continuing Promise, since August. The biannual mission brings medical assistance, expertise and treatment to partner countries.

Capt. Sears, a urologist who specializes in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, doesn’t come to the Comfort as a stranger. In her previous role as fleet surgeon for U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, she was directly involved in preparations for the mission.

That made her a logical choice to take over when Rear Adm. Thomas Shannon, commander of Military Sealift Command, removed Capt. Rachel Haltner from her post as commander of the ship’s hospital Monday, saying he’d lost confidence in Haltner’s ability to lead.

She isn’t the first hospital commander Shannon has removed. Haltner took command in August 2013, after Shannon stripped her predecessor, Capt. Kevin Knoop, of his duties as the hospital commander. That decision was later called into question when a board of inquiry unanimously endorsed Knoop’s leadership and his work.

Around the same time, Shannon fired Capt. William Cogar, commander of the hospital aboard the West Coast-based hospital ship Mercy, for allegedly falsifying physical fitness test results.

Speaking with reporters on the pier Wednesday, Sears said she is ready to go and so is the crew.

“Change is a natural part of military life,” she said. “It’s exactly what we are used to, exactly what we prepare for every day.”

The deployment also marks the first time the Comfort has deployed since 2011, after the 2013 mission was canceled because of across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.

Sears is in charge of a medical staff of more than 700 people, many of them temporarily leaving jobs at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. At various ports of call in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, the staff will share medical expertise with local professionals. They’ll work aboard ship and on land – setting up clinics at stadiums and hospitals for basic medical, dental and veterinary attention and conducting more complex procedures and surgeries on the Comfort.

The ship will work with governments and international charities, among them the Virginia Beach-based Operation Smile.

Capt. Sam Hancock, commander of the Continuing Promise mission, said the medical crew will see more than 130,000 patients during the deployment and will operate on about 100 preselected patients from each country – many of the children suffering from deformities such as cleft palates.

Tracy Briles said her husband, Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Briles, was plucked from his ship, the amphibious transport dock ship San Antonio. He joined the Navy two years ago, at age 33, after he “got burnt out” being a paramedic.

The boatswain’s mate and will be operating an inflatable boat between ship and shore when the Comfort makes its stops. It’s a nice mix for her husband – doing the job he’s been trained to do in the Navy, surrounded by shipmates providing medical care to others, like he used to do.

She’s a little nervous. Her husband will be working on a small boat, where he could encounter pirates or defectors. But she’s also excited. “I can’t wait to hear from him after the first stop, and he sees what they are actually doing,” she said.

Dianna Cahn, 757-222-5846, [email protected]

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