Ship is home after a voyage of mercy

USNS Comfort back at home port after Caribbean mission

October 20, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

Justyn Exman's impatience was turning quickly to anxiety.

"Daddy!" the 5-year-old yelled. "Where are you?"

Justyn, his mom and his 9-year-old sister, along with about 60 other people, were waiting - and waiting - yesterday morning while the mammoth hospital ship USNS Comfort, having just spent four months on a humanitarian mission to Latin America and the Caribbean, cruised into its home port in Baltimore and docked. It was a lengthy, laborious process.

It was not until 9:45 a.m., after some had been standing on the pier for almost two hours, that crew members and medical staff began disembarking. A gate was flung open, and relatives rushed the dock. Hugs and kisses ensued.

"It isn't easy, these long deployments," Kris Trettel said as she waited for her husband, Cmdr. David Trettel, the ship's supply officer, who joined the crew in late August in Panama. "It's a tough one. I married it, so I can't complain. I knew what I was getting into."

Two of the Trettels' three children, Nick, 12, and Sophie, 9, had made the 90-minute trek with their mother from their home in York, Pa., to the Canton Marine Terminal, where the 900-foot-long ship is based. All three said it had been a long time since the whole family had been together, even though, at six weeks, it was less of a separation than most families had endured.

"That was the hard part, not being able to talk to him that often," said Kris Trettel. Her son said communicating with his dad had been especially difficult, and he knew just why.

"I tried to e-mail him, but my mom gave me the wrong e-mail address," Nick said. His mother countered that she had corrected the address, but that perhaps he had forgotten.

When Nick's father - a 23-year Navy veteran - disembarked, he declared his family "a sight for sore eyes."

The latest trip for the Comfort was not inspired by a war or a natural disaster, typical missions during its 20-year service in the Navy. This time, the trip - at a cost of $24 million - fulfilled a diplomatic mission as well as a medical one.

The Comfort provided free medical assistance to more than 98,000 people in 12 countries, including Haiti, Belize, Suriname, Colombia, Guyana and El Salvador. Instead of a floating emergency room for badly injured casualties, it became a vehicle for routine medical services, from vaccinations and eyeglass distribution to dental checkups and surgeries for afflictions such as cataracts and cleft palates - about 1,200 surgeries in all.

"It's not bristling with weapons, it's bristling with good will," said Capt. Ed Nanartowich, Comfort's civil service master, who is responsible for running the ship.

Earlier this week, after some 500 crew and medical personnel left the Comfort in Norfolk, Va., the ship's commanders allowed 70 relatives - many of them children - to board the ship and travel to Baltimore along with the remaining 150 medical staff members and 70 mariners.

"We made candy and arts and crafts, and we watched a movie on the flight deck," said Kayla Owens, the 10-year old daughter of hospital corpsman Jason T. Owens, who has been assigned to the Comfort for two years and whose family lives at Fort Meade. Like her siblings, Jarred, 6, and Kendall, 4, Kayla wore a T-shirt that said, "I'm Here to Pick Up My Daddy."

From the pier, families were invited aboard to look around, although Rhoda Frost, 75, took one look at the rickety gangplank and was happy to stay on dry land. When he finally appeared, her son-in-law, Lt. Christopher Julka, a Navy lawyer, looked at his four small children - three of them triplets - and asked, "Do you remember Daddy?"

Unquestionably. Their father's deployment had been hard on the kids, Frost said.

"It was very bad," she said. "They missed him. I'll tell you, I missed him too, even though he's only my son-in-law."

But, she added, "I'm glad he went to Central America - anywhere but Iraq."

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