U.S. Naval Hospital Ship Mercy

On April 24, 2006, the U.S. Naval Hospital Ship Mercy sailed from San Diego on a mission to provide medical and other humanitarian assistance to the people of South and Southeast Asia. I was privileged to be the commander. Thus began an odyssey that was not only fulfilling and unforgettable for me personally, but also for our crew of approximately 700 Navy and 100 volunteer personnel. In four months, we delivered health care to more than 60,000 impoverished people in four countries: the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and East and West Timor. We also embarked a battalion of Navy Seabees that completed 57 construction projects, from road repair to plumbing and electrical improvements of hospital facilities. All of the regions visited were Muslim. We anchored off Zamboanga, Mindanao, to begin our mission. Despite this being a stronghold of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, we were greeted warmly by the mayor and people. They remembered with great fondness how the Mercy had stopped there on its maiden voyage in 1986.

The Mercy has the capability to support 1,000 beds, with 80 ICU beds and 50 emergency-room beds, but not since Desert Storm has it needed to utilize them all. It has a sophisticated laboratory, a digital radiographic suite, ultrasound and 12 operating rooms. It can generate its own oxygen and desalinate up to 200,000 gallons of water per day. Its flight deck supported two Sea Stallion helicopters that provided our transport when boat travel was not possible. More recently, the Mercy achieved notice for its role after the 2004 Asian tsunami. Deployed to Banda Aceh, the hardest-hit area, it proved beyond doubt that the U.S. could generate a great deal of capability and project a lot of good will. Thus, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami our mission was born—to show compassion and caring to this part of the world.

At least 100 of the crew at any one time were civilians from many different nongovernmental organizations: Project Hope, Operation Smile, Aloha Medical, the American Red Cross, Save the Children and several host-country agencies.

Here’s the awesome part. In all, we saw more than 60,000 patients, performed 1,023 major surgical cases (including oromaxillofacial, orthopedic and general surgery cases) and provided more than 130,000 direct care services in four distinct countries with widely varying cultures and ideologies. Our optometrist refracted thousands of patients and provided them with glasses. Our dentists pulled just as many teeth. Even I pulled a few. At each stop, we delivered medical training, such as CPR and maternal health. We were able to reach more than 10,000 health-care providers in the host nations. We dispensed more than 250,000 medications and performed 26,000 imaging studies.

But statistics are not what this mission was about. It was about how each of us had that one-on-one contact with patients. It was the sight of a rebuilt ward, or a sidewalk. It was watching the crew become involved so intently, and the gratitude on the faces of our patients and their families.

Each of us has a story, a memory unique and indelible. My own fulfillment came from setting a fractured arm for a little girl, and arranging urgent medevac to the ship for a woman with puerperal fever whom our doctors were able to save. The disappointments came at the end of the day when we had to return to our ship, or set sail to a new destination, with so many left behind whom we could not see or help.

As commander, I got to go to all the ceremonies, of course, chat with governors and various potentates. But the real heroes were my military and volunteer crew. They never flinched from danger or complained of fatigue. This was particularly evident among our Navy crew, almost a third of whom were of Filipino origin. During the Philippines phase, they felt like they were coming home, making a difference. Many times, I saw them reach in their pocket and give money to the children or their parents.

We saw leprosy and malaria and kidney stones extracted the size of pears. There were tumors grown so large it took our surgeons Herculean efforts to remove. They had not seen such advanced cases before. Mostly, we saw that if you didn’t have money, you didn’t get care, no matter where you were.

Banda Aceh was an emotional reunion for many of the crew who had been with the ship during the tsunami relief the previous year. We saw that so much rebuilding had occurred but that so much more remained to do. Then it was on to Simeulue and Nias, scene of the earthquake devastation that followed hard on the heels of the tsunami to which Mercy, bound for home in 2005, was asked to return. Simeulue, a poor island, provided us with the most unique gift. The Bupati, or village leader, said that he didn’t have a tangible gift for us; instead, he gave us the “gift” of three sick patients as a token of his trust. We didn’t disappoint him.

We disembarked our last volunteers and medical Navy crew in Darwin, Australia. Later, the organization Terror Free Tomorrow did a survey in the countries we had visited. Pro-American feeling was strong and had changed. As a result, the Navy is planning other missions this summer—to South America, with our sister ship the Comfort, and back to Southeast Asia with the USS Peleliu.