- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

More than 400 Navy nurses, doctors and hospital corpsmen left Bethesda National Naval Medical Center yesterday for the first leg of their deployment in the Middle East.
Their destination: the USNS Comfort, the 1,000-bed hospital ship last reported to be in the Indian Ocean near the equator.
Their duty: tend to the medical needs of U.S. military personnel in the event of war in Iraq.
"You are leaving with the title of patriot. You will return as heroes," Rear Adm. Donald Arthur, commander of the hospital, told the assembled sailors.
Departures came twice the first at noon for about 200 personnel, the second after 4 p.m.
Many of the sailors were in civilian clothes. Most held hands or looped their arms over the shoulders of spouses and children who were in the hospital auditorium to say goodbye.
"We've known it was going to happen for quite awhile," said Shaun Finnegan, 23, a surgical technician from Aurora, Mo.
The hardest part was saying goodbye to his family, said Technician Finnegan, especially to his youngest daughter, Fionti, soon to be 1.
His high school sweetheart and dark-haired wife, Andrea, blinked her eyes rapidly, smiled and held the hand of their older daughter, Josephine, 3.
"I'll have the help of my sister-in-law," Mrs. Finnegan said, referring to Rachael Fleck, 18, standing nearby.
Like all the other departing medical specialists, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Hopkins, 23, had his jampacked duffel bag at his side. It weighed more than his baby daughter, Kylie, who was in the arms of his wife, Dawn A. Kemp, 30, also a hospital corpsman third class stationed at the hospital.
The first sadness about his departure was that Petty Officer Hopkins will miss Kylie's first birthday party next week.
"I'm a little sad, but I'm honored. I'm ready to do my job," Petty Officer Hopkins said. "We're a Navy family. We're both in the Navy. My father was in the Navy."
The statement that Navy personnel are part of a family was used in the farewell address by Adm. Arthur. "We will be here for your family members," he said, then recited his telephone number for their calls for assistance.
Hospital personnel packed the lobby of the hospital tower during the noon hour and applauded as the medics carried their duffel bags to six buses waiting outside.
The buses were taking them to an unspecified airport. Navy officials would not give destinations of the flights or location of the USNS Comfort for security reasons.
On Jan. 6, the USNS Comfort sailed with a limited staff from Baltimore. It was operated by 61 civilian mariners, and the medical staff was composed of about 300 medics from the Bethesda hospital.
The latest deployment, including a few personnel from other naval stations, will bring the ship to full staff of 1,200 medical and hospital support members. The staff includes psychologists, radiologists, pharmacists, nurse anesthetists, physical therapists and administrators.
Adm. Arthur said the hospital corpsmen had undergone special training for the assignment, including learning about treatments for chemical and bacterial ailments.
"They've been trained for the Comfort," Adm. Arthur said. "Some have never been to sea before."
Many volunteered for the duty, purposefully extending their tours of duty at the hospital "so they could go on the Comfort," he said.
"It cuts our staff significantly," Adm. Arthur said, but other naval medical facilities will assist, and cooperation has been arranged with Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District.
When their duties on the Comfort are completed as their tours do not have a specified end most officers and sailors will return to Bethesda.

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