- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2002

The crew of the USNS Comfort has been busy loading medicine, bandages and provisions on the Navy hospital ship, but they are not preoccupied with their assignment of joining the military buildup in the Middle East for a potential war against Iraq.
"We are just focused on taking all the proper steps to get everyone organized, on board and ready to go," said Lt. Cmdr. Edward Austin, one of 225 Navy seamen and 61 civilian mariners aboard the ship, which is scheduled to leave Baltimore this week.
In peacetime, the Comfort supplies emergency humanitarian aid and care for military troops and their families, but Cmdr. Austin said the crew always is training for war.
"We have to be ready to answer these types of calls," he said yesterday. "We are ready to do whatever the country needs us to do."
The Comfort is one of the military's two floating hospitals and has received orders to prepare to support U.S. forces in Iraq with a 1,000-bed trauma center the vessel's maximum capacity.
"That's big when we do that," said Cmdr. Austin, the ship's public affairs officer.
The 900-foot-long converted oil tanker will head to the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, carrying Navy medical staff from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Lexington Park.
It can take about three weeks for the Comfort to reach the Middle East theater.
Enough medical personnel to staff two operating rooms will travel aboard the vessel, but hundreds more doctors will be flown to the Comfort as needed, said Marge Holtz, a spokeswoman for the Navy's Military Sealift Command.
"She is going to be equipped to care for victims of all types of traumas, including chemical and biological attacks," Miss Holtz said.
She also said the ship has decontamination chambers and isolation wards to treat poisoned or infected soldiers.
Miss Holtz said she hopes the United States can avert war, but that the military is prepared for action and deploying the Comfort is an important component of military readiness.
"It shows the resolve of our country in the war against terror," she said.
The Comfort's assignment coincided with Pentagon orders for two aircraft carriers and two amphibious assault vessels to prepare for action against Iraq.
The last time the Comfort embarked on an unscheduled mission was after September 11.
The vessel went to New York, but when few survivors emerged from the World Trade Center, the crew reorganized to feed and house the more than 2,200 rescue workers.
The vessel regularly participates in training and humanitarian missions.
In 1998, the Comfort provided humanitarian support during the political turmoil and refugee crisis in Haiti.
The Comfort and her sister ship, the San Diego-based USNS Mercy, also were deployed in Desert Storm.
Cmdr. Austin said the Comfort's crew trains regularly for war conditions.
Crew members worry about long separations from friends and family, he said, but it's part of the job.
"It is an all-volunteer army," he said.
"You train for it and do your best when these types of things come. I think things have changed since September 11. Obviously, we have been anticipating something like this."

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