- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

Family and loved ones said goodbye yesterday to the estimated 200 Navy sailors and medical crew of the USNS Comfort, which could depart as early as today to join American military forces in the Persian Gulf.
They shared long embraces and tearful farewells at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, home base for most of the Comfort's crew, before buses carried the sailors and medical staff to the ship's home port in Baltimore.
"It is going to be tough, but he's in the service, and that is what this hospital is all about supporting the troops," said Katherine Dwyer as she and her four children said goodbye to Cmdr. Terrence Dwyer, the husband and father who will command medical services aboard the Comfort.
Their oldest child, Michael, 13, had mixed feelings about his father's departure. "I don't like him going, but it's nice that he's serving America," he said. "I'm really proud of him."
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.
The 900-foot-long converted oil tanker will head to the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean carrying about 260 medical and support staff from the National Naval Medical Center.
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.
It can take about three weeks for the Comfort to reach the Middle East theater. Military officials could not predict how long the vessel would be deployed in the Persian Gulf.
Cmdr. Dwyer had been busy all week overseeing the loading of the ship with medicine, bandages and other provisions. "Only last night and today had the emotions about leaving set in," he said.
Cmdr. Dwyer also said the crew can rest assured those at home will be cared for by the Navy, hospital staff, family, friends and neighbors.
Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Scott Walker, 25, who will provide security aboard the Comfort, left behind a wife and two children.
Gunner's Mate Walker said he didn't know whether to expect a war against Iraq, but he was prepared to go the Persian Gulf or wherever the Navy sends him.
"It's my duty," he said. "It's what I have to do."
Said his mother, Linda Walker: "The best I can say about it is that he is on a hospital ship. I feel a little better knowing that."
Holding Gunner's Mate Walker's son, Brandon, 2, she said, "He's a daddy's boy. We are going to have a terrible time with him, but there is enough love to go around."
Most of the crew members and their loved ones downplayed the possibility of war.
"We're not going to war," Stacie Sullivan, a career Navy hospital corpsman, told her son, Andrew, 10. "We're just checking things out."
The Comfort's assignment to the Persian Gulf region coincided with Pentagon orders for two aircraft carriers and two amphibious assault vessels to prepare for action against Iraq.
"Leaving the family behind, that's the worse part," said Ensign Julia Reintjes, 23. "I'm not too worried about the war. I guess I feel I'll be safe on the ship."
Her father, retired Lt. Col. David Reintjes of the Marine Corps, said he was not prepared to watch his own children go to sea, but he had no misgivings about their mission.
"I have emotions I haven't experienced before," he said. "You have children shipping out. It's different when it's not you. I'm not worried about the war. They are well trained, and I think we are doing the right thing."
Ensign Reintjes' boyfriend, Joe Soviero, 23, was not as stoic.
"It's not good," said Mr. Soviero, an accounting consultant who has been dating Ensign Reintjes for five years. "It's dangerous. Saddam is kind of crazy. I hope she comes back soon."
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.

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