Hospital ship's crew eager for new duty OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 07, 1992|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

The crew of the USNS Comfort, the Baltimore-based hospital ship that took part in the Gulf War, began preparing yesterday for a Christmastime mission in Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope.

The 42-member crew which maintains the ship in port at the Baltimore Harbor near Canton spent the day repositioning on-board materials and checking engines and other machinery in anticipation of shipping out this week.

A request to activate the ship has been made by the U.S. Central Command to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Formal orders are expected within 48 hours, said Marge Holtz, spokeswoman for the Military Sealift Command, the civilian agency which operates the ship.

"[The ship] will be asked to activate as a 250-bed military support hospital," she said.

In Bethesda, approximately 500 medical personnel were to be processed at the Naval Medical Center this morning and were expected to meet the ship in Norfolk Wednesday or Thursday, said hospital spokesman Cmdr. Bill Clyde.

Comfort crew members expressed eagerness yesterday to leave despite the fact that their deployment would mean missing the holidays with their families.

"I'm excited. I'm ready to go. It's what we're here for," said Cmdr. Ralph Lockhart of Arlington, Va., in charge of the naval and civilian personnel who maintain the ship in port.

Commander Lockhart, 49, who sailed with the Comfort to the Persian Gulf in August 1990, said he was not disturbed at having to cancel a planned Christmas visit to his mother in South Carolina.

"There's really no higher calling than this mission of mercy," he said. "I was taught it was better to give than receive."

Robert Foster, 30, a civilian deck officer who was married a month ago and lives with his wife in the Patterson Park area, said being at sea for the holidays "comes with the job."

"I think it's a worthy cause," he said of Operation Restore Hope. "There are a lot of people there who need assistance. I feel good about that kind of mission."

"I would be thrilled to go to Somalia and help out the situation," said Hospital Corpsman Damarie Grunauer, 21, of Essex. Though she said it would mean being far from her family in New York, she added, "My family understands this is important. To me, this is what Christmas stands for -- helping other people."

The Comfort's activation as a 250-bed hospital would be a quarter of the 1,000-bed capacity used during the Gulf War. This shows that Operation Restore Hope is a humanitarian relief effort and not a full-blown combat situation, according to Ms. Holtz, the Military Sealift Command spokeswoman.

It would take the Comfort 17 days to reach Somalia, and the ship would leave port no later than five days after receiving orders, she said.

The cost of getting the Comfort ready is $125,000, and the cost of operating it is $50,000 a day under sail and $40,000 a day in port, excluding personnel, she said.

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