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Navy hospital ship Comfort returning from 6-month mission

Navy hospital ship Comfort returning from 6-month mission
By Dianna Cahn
The Virginian-Pilot
© September 28, 2015

For the first time since it started calling Norfolk home more than two years ago, the Navy hospital ship Comfort will pull into port Tuesday, buoyed by six months of humanitarian achievement.

The Comfort moved from Baltimore to Norfolk in March 2013 in what Navy officials thought would be several quick weeks in port before heading south on its biannual humanitarian mission to South and Central America, known as Continuing Promise.

That mission was canceled when a political crisis in Washington forced automatic mandatory budget cuts. The ship sat in port for two years before departing this past April when Continuing Promise came around again.

The ship returns Tuesday after close to six months of conducting medical treatments and training. It visited 12 countries, and its more than 700 personnel – a mix of sailors and civilians – treated more than 120,000 patients and conducted more than 1,200 surgeries. They also exchanged ideas with hundreds of medical professionals and completed more than 90 engineering and building projects.

The ship was supposed to arrive Sunday, but the homecoming was postponed because of the inclement weather forecast, the Navy said.

Before departing, crew members spoke with anticipation about the mission they were embarking upon. Several said they hoped that the work ahead of them could counter the political difficulties the ship’s crew had endured.

In August 2013, just months after the Comfort arrived in Norfolk, the commander of Military Sealift Command, Rear Adm. Thomas Shannon, sacked the ship’s hospital commander, Capt. Kevin Knoop, saying he had lost confidence in Knoop’s leadership.

That decision later was called into question when a board of inquiry unanimously endorsed Knoop’s leadership and work.

Shannon tapped Capt. Rachel Haltner to take his place, and she oversaw preparations for the current mission. But just two days before the Comfort departed, and amid complaints of a negative environment under Haltner’s leadership, Shannon fired Haltner.

He replaced her with Capt. Christine Sears, who was the fleet surgeon and had been directly involved in planning Continuing Promise. She joined the crew a day before the ship set sail from Norfolk.

The turnover was not done, however. In July, in the midst of its mission, the senior enlisted leader, Command Senior Chief Aurelio Ayala, was relieved. A statement from the command said Sears reassigned Ayala following an alcohol-related incident while on liberty in Panama.

Among the highlights of the deployment, the Comfort’s crew made a two-day stop at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay from Sept. 20 to 21 and worked with Cuban doctors while in Haiti in early September.

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

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