Comfort still not told to sail to Somalia, but all expect to be there over holidays OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 08, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

BETHESDA -- One after another, the doctors, nurses, hospitalmen and lab technicians lined up yesterday to get their shots -- immunization against yellow fever, malaria, cholera and any other exotic ailment lurking in Africa.

Anticipating imminent orders to Somalia for Operation Restore Hope, the Naval Medical Center began processing the 450 to 500 medical and support personnel who would staff the hospital ship USNS Comfort. Medical, dental and pay records were updated, and provisions made to care for families left behind.

At a briefing at the Pentagon yesterday, Navy officials insisted there was presently "no intent" to send the Comfort for duty off Somalia. But here the crew and medical staff were acting as if the 250-bed floating hospital would be sailing from Baltimore before the end of the week on what could be a three- to four-month tour of duty.

Expecting to be gone over Christmas, some of those with young families expressed mixed feelings, but all said they view the mission as a necessary national commitment.

For Lt. Debra Ward, 33, of Gaithersburg, Christmas came last Saturday with her two youngsters and her husband, a Navy officer stationed at the Pentagon.

"We've already celebrated. This will be my first time away from the children," said the laboratory officer. "My husband is away a lot, so the children are going to stay with their grandparents in Indiana. I feel more comfortable now."

While the nine-year Navy veteran said she wouldn't know what to expect in Somalia, she declared, "I think it will be interesting."

If dispatched, the Comfort would anchor off Somalia's main port of Mogadishu and provide medical support for American forces sent to the famine-stricken, war-torn land to ensure the distribution of food, said Lt. Cdr. William W. Clyde, the medical center's public-affairs officer.

While some Somalis might be treated aboard ship for humanitarian considerations, that would not be the general rule, he said. Military units would be setting up medical-aid stations ashore to help the Somalis, while military casualties and patients would be flown to the Comfort by helicopter.

Cmdr. George L. Marsh, 48, of Poolesville, who would be assistant director of nursing services aboard the Comfort in Somalia, said, "The real challenge is flexibility, to deal with everything from battle casualties to tropical diseases to malnutrition."

Commander Marsh said he would regard a mission to Somalia as a challenge, even if he would rather be spending Christmas with his family, including two teen-age children.

"They understand from seeing it on television what it's about. So let's get it done and make our contribution," he said

Hospitalman Sean Hanna, 21, volunteered to go, taking the place of a buddy away on emergency leave.

"I think it's great that . . . the United Nations is doing something about it, to let the refugees get their aid. We can't police the world, but I think it's good to do this. I don't mind missing a turkey dinner to help people who haven't eaten anything in weeks," he said.

For Cmdr. Toni Kuehnle, a Navy nurse, the trip to Somalia would be "an adventure."

But her husband, a Navy pilot, and her two children, ages 8 and 12, would stay behind, of course, and that would mean her "first Christmas away from them."

Hospitalman Andre Bailey, 21, of Chicago served in the Persian Gulf war aboard a warship but is now trained as an operating room nurse. "I'm really excited about it," Hospitalman Bailey said. "These people need us. We can help."

Lt. Cdr. David Higgins of Silver Spring is an orthopedic surgeon who would be spending his first Christmas away from his family. He has three children, ages 2, 4 and 6. "But this is what I signed up for," he said.

Dr. Higgins said he would expect to see many injuries such as hand lacerations and fractures as servicemen handle their equipment, as well as some medical problems not usually encountered in the United States,

Trying to put a light note on the assignment, he said, "It's cold here and it's warm there."

Once the Comfort received its sailing orders, about 150 support personnel would be boarding the ship in Baltimore for the overnight trip to Norfolk. There the Comfort would load additional supplies and pick up medical personnel bused from Washington.

The voyage to Mogadishu, on the Indian Ocean, would take about 17 to 18 days, said Bob Anderson, deputy public affairs officer.

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