- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

Soraya Tampalan, a 13-year-old Filipina born with a disfiguring cleft palate, was nervous and began to cry just before she was to undergo corrective surgery aboard USNS Mercy, the U.S. Navy hospital ship.

“I want to look pretty,” she said.

Several hours later, a team of U.S. military doctors — Navy Capt. Craig Cupp, Air Force Maj. Richard Buck and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Graig Salt — said the operation was successful.

“I want to go back to school and get an education,” said Soraya, who had dropped out of school because of taunts by other children, according to Chief Petty Officer Don Bray, a Navy journalist.

The operation to correct Soraya’s cleft lip has been but one of perhaps 50,000 procedures the medical crew aboard Mercy have performed in recent weeks in Southeast Asia.

The 70,000-ton ship “is the most capable hospital on the planet — and you can move it around,” said Adm. Gary Roughead, who commands the U.S. Pacific Fleet and exercises operational control over Mercy.

The Mercy crews have treated goiter, examined eyes for glasses, soothed burns, set broken bones, pulled rotten teeth and given all manner of shots.

One team removed cataracts that had blinded Mara Harun, 60, for seven years.

Doctors and nurses from Mercy have taught classes and seminars with local medical people. Mercy’s technicians have repaired respiratory ventilators, anesthesia machines, X-ray equipment and operating-room lights in antiquated clinics in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Seabees from Navy construction battalions have fixed generators, repaired roofs and painted hospitals.

Not all has been successful. Four children with cleft palates had to be turned away because respiratory ailments precluded operations. Cancer patients could not be treated because that takes months.

A Navy doctor, Cmdr. Lynn Leventis, who had not seen a maternal death in 15 years, witnessed two Bangladeshi mothers die from infection after they had delivered their babies.

Soraya, Mrs. Harun and hundreds more were treated aboard Mercy when the ship was anchored off the island of Jolo, in the southwestern Philippines.

Jolo is in the Philippines’ poorest province, where 63 percent of the people live in poverty and the average life span is 52 years compared with the national average of 72.

Jolo also is in a region where a large majority of the population is Muslim. The chain of islands has been identified by U.S. intelligence as a route over which Muslim terrorists move among the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Similarly, Bangladesh is dominated by Muslims and Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

Mercy is part of a U.S. effort to persuade Muslims not to support terrorists.

“What Mercy does,” Adm. Roughead said, “is to allow a force of good to go someplace, do good work and show people that there are alternatives to some of the forces that are in play in their part of the world.”

Planning for Mercy’s five-month voyage from home port in San Diego began almost a year ago after the ship returned from assisting victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. That experience showed that many nongovernmental organizations, having worked in Southeast Asia, could provide valuable knowledge of the region.

Several groups were invited to join the voyage, and they did.

Aloha Medical Mission of Honolulu seeks to help people who lack access to medical care and Operation Smile’s volunteers repair facial deformities in children.

The mission also recruited military medical teams from Canada, India, Singapore and Australia, and worked with those of the Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Security was a constant concern. The ship often stayed offshore to fend off assaults and because port facilities were inadequate.

Helicopters and two motorboats, Band Aid 1 and Band Aid 2, ferried medical personnel ashore and patients to the ship.

The Navy doctor who commands the medical teams, Capt. Joseph Moore, pointed to the need to win the trust of people who had never seen a ship as large as Mercy or flown in a helicopter or been attended by such a diverse collection of men and women, Americans and Asians, military people and civilians.

“We were all witness to the courage and trust it took on the part of a Bangladeshi mother or father to escort their child through the surgical process. After a 30-minute transit from shore, they stepped out of the helicopter and onto the deck of this immense ship, and proceeded to walk into what must have felt like a completely foreign world,” Capt. Moore said in a message to the Mercy team members.

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