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IamA Sailor with over 10 years on board the US Navy's Hospital Ship USNS MERCY. Our sister ship USNS COMFORT is on the way to Puerto Rico to help in relief efforts. AM(almost)A!

Sep 30th 2017 by Navydevildoc • 8 Questions • 228 Points

I have spent the last 10+ years of my life making sure that USNS MERCY is ready to head to sea for Combat Casualty Care, Humanitarian Assistance, or Disaster Relief.

I am an IT expert, former Active Duty Sailor, Amateur Radio Operator, Rugby and Hockey Player, and Land Rover Devotee.

USNS COMFORT left Norfolk, VA today to be a Level One Trauma Center and specialty referral center for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean at large.

Here is USNS MERCY: https://www.dvidshub.net/video/516700/usns-mercy-mission-and-overview-4k

Here is USNS COMFORT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JNNYaINshQ

Here is the New York Times reporting on board the Comfort: https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/americas/1247466712758/saving-lives-on-the-u-s-n-s-comfort.html

Mods, I am more than willing to provide proof via a private method, please let me know how.

Q:

What happens aboard ship during a storm or heavy seas. Can medical procedures still be conducted?

A:

Another great question!

So when heavy seas hit (and keep in mind, our version of heavy seas may be much worse that you are thinking of) everyone gets inside the skin of the ship and we literally "batten down the hatches".

But, to your question about medical procedures... we would much rather conduct surgery in calm seas. But if we must, the ship is designed so that the 12 operating rooms are aligned along the rotational axis of the ship, to produce the minimum amount of movement.

Elsewhere on board you would find large D-Rings, anchor points, and other means to "secure for sea" with cargo straps and similar gear.


Q:

If the ship is generally always ready, why did it take 10 days to deploy after Hurricane Maria?

A:

The Mercy and the Comfort are always ready to respond within 5 days of "The Flag Going Up". It could be for combat operations, disaster response, whatever.

Comfort literally deployed 4 days after being officially tasked.

I am not going to speculate on why it took that long for her to be sent. That would be an excellent question for your congressional delegation. The Navy does not act until directed by your elected civilian leadership.


Q:

Thanks for your great answer, and for your service. I had no idea that Congress controlled the deployment of an individual ship. That seems like a quite inefficient setup. 😕

A:

Generally Congress does not control the deployment of a ship.

But this is unique.

FEMA needs to request a certain capability for homeland defense and disaster recovery. That request would most likely go to the Commander, Northern Command (called NORTHCOM) who is in charge of all military operations over North America. That request would then be passed down to NAVNORTH, or Commander of Navy Forces, North America. Only then does actual ship deployment orders get cut via fleet commanders.

Somewhere along there the chain was broken. I don't know where.


Q:

All I could find is that four were built. I'm assuming they were all Jones Act ships, otherwise they'd probably have been built overseas.

From these photos, it looks like she has a new navigational bridge up forward, while still maintaining much of the original superstructure aft. Is that correct?

I think the last question I have, if there weren't any deep enough berths, how would you transfer people to and from shore? I'm guessing you don't carry a fleet of landing craft, although the lifeboats I see in the picture could likely do pretty well.

Thanks for all your answers! I've always admired these ships, sometimes in person, but never really took the time to get to know them.

A:

Man, you really know what to ask!

Yeah, the bridge is now forward, but it used to be back aft. When NASSCO converted the ships they literally chopped off the bridge and moved it forward on to the new superstructure. The bridge is an amalgamate of 1970s tanker and 2010s modern shipping. Where the bridge used to be is now a weather deck that holds the most important piece of equipment, our Armed Forces Network Direct to Sailor dish, which gives us 3 channels: News, Sports, and "AFN Prime" which is a rotation of popular TV shows. The News channel switches each hour between a large selection of sources, you can be watching the PBS news hour that's followed by Cavuto, followed by the CBS Evening news. The AFN crew at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County does a good job of getting us what we want each day.

As far as transferring patients... We have two major options. We can either fly them via helicopter to the flight deck, or we can bring them alongside in our tender boats. The tenders are the same thing used by cruise lines to move passengers to shore excursions, except ours are equipped with wheelchair ramps and the ability to hold NATO standard patient litters. Our claim to fame is that last year we were the first US flagged boats to sail up the Han river in Da Nang in Vietnam since the end of the war. We were there working with the Vietnamese to learn how to work together in a natural disaster.


Q:

What about the Ford Class supercarrier such as the USS Gerald R. Ford that was commissioned into the navy in July of 2017?

A:

Ugh, OK... yeah so OK I forgot about the Ford class. So we are now third largest.


Q:

Being a hospital ship, you're obviously not playing an offensive role in a war zone. However, is there any situation besides pure self defense that you are allowed to intervene in force? In short, what is your ROE? Also, would you only provide help for friendly forces, or have there been instances of injuried enemies being treated aboard?

A:

The Second Geneva Convention is extremely clear about the employment of hospital ships.

We will provide aid and comfort to all forces. This must be absolutely clear. In fact, during desert storm both MERCY and COMFORT treated prisoners of war. We do not prioritize patients based on nationality, only on true medical need.

In addition, hospital ships may only act in self defense. Full stop. The moment any kind of offensive action is taken from a hospital ship, she immediately loses all Geneva Conventions protection. This is something we take very seriously.

As far as discrete ROE, I won't go in to that. Safe to say, we will defend ourselves, but never, ever, ever, EVER, go on the offensive.


Q:

What is the ratio of time between being actively deployed helping somewhere, and just being in port?
Have there been times when the ship was needed in two or more places at once?
What does the crew do when not deployed?

A:

Great questions!

Typically, the hospital ships do a 6 month out, 18 month back rotation. The year that one ship is out is when the other ship is back at home to respond to a disaster. However, that time at home is used for training, refit, repair, and upgrades in the various shipyards along the two coasts.

In the modern era (i.e. Post Vietnam) there has not been a scenario where more than one crisis has needed the help of a Mercy Class ship. Operation Desert Storm saw both ships deploy to the Persian Gulf due to the expected number of casualties.

Fun Fact: If you look at the front of each ship you will see that the red cross is centered for Comfort, and offset to the port side for Mercy. This was done after the helicopter pilots had a hard time telling the two ships apart!

When the ships are not deployed, a hard working crew of about 60 active duty Sailors and 40 civilian Merchant Mariners keep the ship ready for sea, rotating consumable stock, calibrating medical equipment, patching systems for cybersecurity, etc. The rest of the crew (up to 1,300) are part of the staff of the Naval Medical Center or Naval Hospitals nearest the ship, seeing patients daily.


Q:

Do u or your crew ever get claustrophobic? Thank you for your service.

A:

No, not at all.

In fact, one of the first things that Sailors talk about is how wide and open the Mercy and Comfort are. We have to be able to move Hill-Rom or Stryker gurneys around the ship, and the only way to do that is with open passageways, no "knee-knockers", etc.

A favorite passtime of hospital ship sailors is to go above deck at night and watch the Milky Way. When there is not another light for 1,000 miles, the star gazing is life altering.