The USNS Comfort cruised into its home port of Baltimore on Tuesday, ending a four-month humanitarian health mission and reuniting doctors, nurses and sailors with family and friends.
During a tour that brought the ship to seven Caribbean, Central and South American nations, the Comfort's staff treated more than 100,000 patients, and worked with each country's health ministry so that health care could continue after the ship's departure.
Capt. Thomas J. Finger called the mission a "phenomenal success," and said it "certainly exceeded what I expected we'd be able to accomplish."
Dubbed "Continuing Promise," the voyage mirrored a similar Comfort humanitarian trip in 2007. This time, however, the ship made longer stops in fewer countries, a change designed to address concerns that the earlier trip didn't allow enough time for more extensive procedures requiring complex postoperative recovery and follow-up care.
Instead of spending five days at 12 countries, Comfort worked in seven countries for 10 to 12 days each.
Capt. James J. Ware, the commanding officer who oversaw the Comfort's medical operations, said the new schedule, along with his crew's close interaction with local doctors, led to quality treatment.
"These countries weren't without medical capabilities, but we offered different capacities for their structures," he said. "It was a true partnership."
Beyond using advanced technology on board the ship, the Comfort's doctors trained local doctors to monitor discharged patients, and in turn, the local doctors taught Ware's medical personnel about their local medical conditions.
Comfort's crew included 71 medical professionals from the partner and host nations, which included Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, France, Haiti, the Netherlands, Nicaragua and Panama.
In addition, more than 270 volunteers from organizations such as Operation Smile and Rotary Club International took part.
The Comfort delivered more than $4 million of donated aid, completed 13 construction projects in local communities and provided care to thousands of animals, Navy officials said.
It was the latest in a planned series of humanitarian tours launched by the Bush administration as a way to build support for the United States and its policies in foreign countries.
By the time the Comfort docked in Canton Pier on Tuesday, only about 800 of the original 1,000 people were still on board. The ship had stopped in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and in Norfolk, Va., giving crew the chance to leave the ship then. Also, about 80 family members and 110 other ship riders boarded the Comfort in Norfolk on a "tiger cruise," so civilians could ride along with crew members.
Ryanjon Milan, a 22-year-old nursing student whose mother worked on the Comfort as a nurse, experienced the tiger cruise. After a week on board, he left the ship and met back up with his mother on Tuesday. He wants to join the Navy after he graduates, and said his mother's naval work has inspired his career path.
"She was definitely a big influence," said Milan, part of a crowd of about 100 people who awaited the ship's arrival. He painted a "welcome home" sign for her and climbed a Dumpster for a better view as the ship slowly approached its berth.
Operations officer Marc Seals called Continuing Promise a "much more fulfilling experience" than the three other deployments he has been on.
Still, while Seals was at sea, he missed the birth of his daughter and his fifth wedding anniversary.
"It's really good to have him home," said his wife, Emily, cradling their newborn daughter.