- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

BALTIMORE — The USNS Comfort returned to its home port yesterday, more than five months after it was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a crowd of relatives and friends waving “Welcome Home” signs and U.S. flags.

About 320 military medical and support personnel — most from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda — and about 60 civil service mariners from the Navy’s Military Sealift Command sailed on the ship to Canton Pier.

“We need to celebrate everyone on this ship. Every one of the men and women standing on those rails saved lives,” said Adm. Donald Arthur, commander of the National Naval Medical Center.

At least 500 people cheered, and a military band played as the ship neared Pier 11. The ship eased alongside just after 2 p.m., and a rope was thrown from the Comfort to the pier, which was decorated with red, white and blue balloons.

Gregg Hollinger, 40, of Bowie waited with his two children for his wife, Senior Chief Petty Officer Seconda Hollinger, 36. The family had a sign that said, “Welcome Home, Mommy,” and the kids wore shirts that said, “Mommy’s Back.”

“It’s been 5 long months,” Mr. Hollinger said. “It was really hard at first, but we’ve got a Mr. Mom system going now.”

Mr. Hollinger was in the Navy for 23 years, but now works as an information-technology project manager.

“Staying home is rougher. On the ship, you’ve got your job and you do it, and you’re good at it because you’ve trained for it,” he said. “There’s no training for the Navy spouse job.”

He said his 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter complained about his cooking and his daughter didn’t like the way he fixed her hair.

Marissa De Platta of Waldorf waited with her two children for her husband, chief storekeeper Daniel De Platta. She said the first thing her 8-year-old son said when he woke up yesterday was, “Today’s the day Daddy’s finally coming home.”

The Comfort, a tanker converted to a 1,000-bed hospital with 12 operating rooms, left Baltimore on Jan. 6.

In March, about 1,100 personnel, including 1,000 medical specialists, were working on the ship. By early May, more than half of the military medical and support staff had left the Comfort for Bahrain before returning to the United States.

During its deployment, more than 650 patients were treated on board. That includes about 200 Iraqi prisoners of war and Iraqi civilians, the Navy said. About 330 of the patients were admitted and spent at least one night on the ship, said B.J. Talley, a spokesman for the Military Sealift Command in Washington. Others were treated and then transported off the boat.

“Nowhere in Iraq is there a medical center as capable as the hospital on this ship,” Adm. Arthur said. “The great news is how many Iraqis these men and women were able save. They sent a tremendous message to the people of Iraq with their compassion and their care. They saved lives and they saved limbs.”

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