ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT -- On the way home to Baltimore, after eight months away in the Persian Gulf war, the USNS Comfort was anchored off Annapolis this morning, the Bay Bridge barely visible through the fog.
A crewman's family rocked in a little cabin cruiser off to starboard in the hope of giving him an early welcome home. Congressmen and military brass were boarding helicopters to fly in for a welcoming ceremony. The ship was full of anticipation of its homecoming to Dundalk this afternoon.
The crew's first glimpse of America was the traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel at the mouth of the bay yesterday, a mundane scene that made them slap-happy. As cars crossed the bridge section before plunging down the tunnel, crew members waved and shouted to the drivers, "We're home."
The Comfort is an 894-foot oil supertanker that was converted to a hospital ship in 1987 and painted white with red crosses 27 feet across on its sides. The ship was berthed at Canton the following year for proximity to Bethesda Naval Hospital, which supplied much of the medical staff when the ship was activated.
The ship deployed to war last August and logged about 35,000 miles, mostly on maneuvers and calling at ports in the Persian Gulf. The worst part of the cruise was anticipating the casualties that the military foretold.
"They estimated we would have 200 people a day coming in," said hospital corpsman Lisa DeGroff, a reservist from Olney who serves as a pharmacy technician. "I'm 28 years old. I remember watching the Vietnam War in black and white" on television, she said. "I never expected to be in a war."
As the war turned out, the ship handled no direct casualties of combat, but the staff did treat many troops -- 716 inpatients and more than 8,000 outpatients -- who were hurt in other ways. Some of them had been in military vehicle accidents or had suffered heart attack symptoms, apparently from stress.
Among the worst cases the ship received were crewmen burned by a steam pipe explosion in October aboard the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima.
"When I walked in there, my jaw fell open," said Lt. Teresa Shelton, a nurse from New York. "There was blood all over the floor. It looked as if the beds were bleeding."
Two of those four burned patients died. "While working on one of TC them," Shelton said, "I remember standing there crying as I was suturing an IV into the kid's arm."
After the war started, most of the combat casualties were taken to a land-based naval hospital in Saudi Arabia.
But the Comfort can match the staff and facilities of most land hospitals. With 1,000 patient-beds, the Comfort is the ninth-largest American hospital. The ship's personnel, which peaked at almost 1,200 during the war, includes 55 physicians and surgeons, six dentists and 172 nurses.
The hospital ship has stairs instead of ship's ladders, doors instead of hatches. Inside an operating room, the only visible difference from a land hospital is that the operating table is bolted to the floor and the equipment is lashed to the walls for steadiness on the heaving sea.
Although the ship is well stocked with medical supplies and expertise, physicians aboard are always mindful of the limits to electricity and water. "You have to treat a lot smarter," said Dr. Robert Colligan, a reservist who left behind an emergency medical practice in Lafayette, La.
Colligan thinks twice when ordering tests on the power-draining CAT scan. "Because, if you crank it up, you've got to sacrifice other things."
Another scarce commodity aboard the ship is diversion. Several crew members acknowledged boredom as their worst enemy.
They said they could relieve it only so much through simulated emergency treatment on shipmates daubed with red food coloring and shaving cream.
The crew also played basketball and volleyball and lost many balls overboard. To keep fit they ran races around the flight deck -- 62 circuits for a 10-kilometer race.
Despite the spells of boredom, the staff "performed in stellar fashion," said Capt. Roger J. Pantzien, the commanding officer of the ship's hospital facility.
He is recommending 636 of them for awards, from letters of commendation to Bronze Stars, for their rapid preparation to receive casualties aboard.
During eight months at sea, Pantzien said, he held only 10 disciplinary hearings. Only one crewman was sent to court-martial, for brandishing a fire ax in a moment of personal stress, he said.
Pantzien is director of medical services at Bethesda and a practicing psychiatrist. He often speaks gently in the phrases of a counselor.
"We have indeed become a family," he said, predicting tearful goodbyes when the crew disperses today.
After sitting in port for three years with only a small crew for maintenance, the ship had set out on its first mission with a greatly augmented crew drawn from 60 different military commands and with an identity that was a "clean slate," Pantzien said. "I think we've come home painting a very beautiful picture."