On April 30, Navy spouse Beth Wilson made history. She was the first spouse embedded on a mission with the armed forces.
Mrs. Wilson, a columnist and advocate for military families, embarked as a blogger on the USNS Comfort as part of Operation Continuing Promise. The home port of the Comfort, one of two Navy hospital ships, is Baltimore.
The primary mission of the Comfort is to provide medical and surgical care for all U.S. military branches. Missions are in areas where hostilities may be imminent. As a secondary mission, the Comfort provides full hospital service for humanitarian operations worldwide.
The Continuing Promise 2009 mission is a form of medical diplomacy, intended to demonstrate U.S. commitment and support to seven Latin American countries. The team is comprised of U.S. armed forces as well as military personnel from the Netherlands, France, Canada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and several nongovernmental agencies.
Mrs. Wilson embarked on the Comfort for 10 days to observe the mission and interview the crew. While aboard, she hosted her blog talk-radio show. "The U.S. Navy often embarks medialike bloggers, distinguished visitors and congressional delegates to show what the Navy is doing for the taxpayer," said Lt. Callie D. Ferrari, Navy office of information news desk action officer. "Mrs. Wilson embarked on USNS Comfort in her role as a blogger."
Sailors gave shout-outs to their families back home. "I was impressed that she wants to tell the story of the military experience to nonmilitary families - what we feel, what it's like, what we learn from these missions, especially this Continuing Promise 2009 mission, about the world and about ourselves," said Lt. Martin Battcock, maritime civil affairs liasion on board Comfort.
"Many times while at sea, Internet communications were down. I now know what it is like for my husband when he is deployed, not being able to call or e-mail home," Mrs. Wilson said.
(Corrected paragraph:) Mrs. Wilson boarded the Comfort in the Dominican Republic and disembarked in Antigua on May 9. All journalists pay their own expenses for an embed, but USAA sponsored her trip and paid for her expenses.
"It was amazing to see a floating hospital that could bring together such a diverse team," Mrs. Wilson said. "The crew helped the people of the Dominican Republic with medical needs ranging from facial surgeries, such as cleft palate and harelips, to giving out eyeglasses. They even treated many animals. The Navy Seabees installed electricity and plumbing to a medical center. They took the building from a shell to a lab."
The mission had an emotional and physical impact on Mrs. Wilson. "It was an amazing reminder of how incredibly blessed we are as a nation. Even the poorest among us are wealthy compared to some of our close neighbors," she said. "I watched people wait in line for care; they were so incredibly grateful for the medical, vision and dental care. I was so proud to see the professionalism of the crew and nongovernmental organizations and to see the impact on so many lives. This opportunity to embed has profoundly changed my life. I have a renewed respect for not only my sailor but all service members who leave their wife, husband, children, to serve."
Mrs. Wilson said she was especially impressed by the crew's loyalty. "I had open access to the crew at all levels. I was amazed at the commitment, dedication and enthusiasm for the mission," she said.
She also has a new appreciation for the soldiers' sacrifices and dedication. "I'm glad I'm the spouse left behind," Mrs. Wilson said. "I couldn't get off the ship if I had wanted to. I just had to stay there. What a sobering realization."
Mrs. Wilson said she hopes to support other spouses through her blogs and talk shows. "We really are the anchor for our service member, our sailor; though we may not hear from our service member as often as we prefer, we are never far from their thoughts, never out of their hearts," she said.
Mrs. Wilson said it was difficult to leave behind her husband, whose grandmother was in the hospital struggling for her life. "I am afraid of not being there for you. And I am afraid of not being able to say goodbye to your grandmother," Mrs. Wilson told her husband with a lump in her throat and a knot in her stomach.
"Welcome to my world. I have the same emotions when I leave you for a deployment. I am afraid I am not going to be able to be there for you," said her husband, an active-duty sailor stationed on the West Coast.
Mrs. Wilson said military families have two sets of life skills: one for the "left behind" and another for the "departing."
Lt. Matt S. Gill, Comfort public affairs officer, said Mrs. Wilson made a lasting impression on the crew. "I found her extremely engaging, energetic, sharp and well-spoken and I look forward to watching her career take off in the coming years. She's welcome back any time," he said.
"It was such a great deal for us to have you out here. We had a very good time with you while you were on board Comfort," Capt. Bob Lineberry, mission commander for Continuing Promise 2009, told Mrs. Wilson. She has been offered two additional opportunities to embed overseas.
Lt. Ferrari said, "Requests for media to embed on USNS Comfort to cover the Continuing Promise mission need to go through SouthCom and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet."
• Brenda Lee Hurley is a former management marketing analyst and a Navy wife living in Manassas.