- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Stress levels were so high among sailors aboard a Navy hospital ship preparing to provide humanitarian assistance to Latin America that the medical unit was not considered mission capable weeks before it was set to deploy in March, according to Navy documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The commander of the USNS Comfort’s medical unit, Capt. Rachel Haltner, was removed from her post two days before the ship left port. At the time, the Navy said the move was due to a “loss of confidence in Haltner’s ability to command.”

Navy documents released to The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act show sailors in the Comfort’s medical unit reported low levels of trust in their leadership and felt mentally, physically and emotionally worn out before they ever deployed. The documents showed many respondents to a command climate survey said they got six hours of sleep or less per night, that there were communication issues and there was a lack of personnel to get the job done.

The survey, which was conducted by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, also showed that sailors in the ship’s medical unit experienced much higher levels of stress than others in the Navy’s medical field.

Haltner could not be reached for comment. There was no response at an address listed for her and the Navy said it would not make her available to discuss the survey. She had served as the commanding officer of the ship’s medical treatment facility since 2013.

The USNS Comfort is currently being used to build goodwill by providing medical and dental care in 11 countries. In a 10-day period in July, it treated more than 9,300 patients in Colombia, according to the Navy. The Comfort’s medical treatment facility currently has about 700 sailors assigned to it, although it can have as many as 1,200. The vessel was also deployed to New York after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This year’s five-month mission is the first the Norfolk-based ship has undertaken in four years due to spending cuts.

Haltner was reassigned to the staff at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth pending the outcome of the Navy’s investigation, which isn’t finished. Capt. Christine Sears has been assigned to oversee the Comfort’s medical unit.


Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis

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