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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Mercy stocks up on aloha

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Dr. Carl Lum, left, and Dr. Ramon K. Sy will join the team heading to Asia and the South Pacific aboard the U.S. Navy medical ship Mercy, which pulled into Pearl Harbor yesterday.

Photos by RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The Navy medical ship Mercy pulled into Pearl Harbor yesterday. The ship took part in disaster relief after the 2004 tsunami and is now heading to the same region on a humanitarian mission.

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The U.S. Navy ship Mercy stopped in Hawai'i to pick up supplies and a team from the Aloha Medical Mission. The ship, which has diagnostic, radiology and laboratory equipment on board, is headed for a humanitarian mission in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.

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Mercy crew member Lt. Cmdr. Kurt Hildebrandt, a pediatrician, gave visiting members of the Aloha Medical Mission a tour of his ship's radiology department.

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PEARL HARBOR A little over a year ago, Dr. Carl H. Lum was performing surgery in a tent surrounded by knee-deep mud in tsunami-ravaged Indonesia.

"That was my operating room, and when I looked out, there was the (hospital ship) Mercy offshore, and I said, 'I wish I could be on the Mercy operating there,' " Lum said.

Later this month, the Honolulu surgeon will get the chance. Lum will board the big white Navy ship, whose mission and hull is marked by distinctive red crosses, when it arrives in the Philippines.

The converted supertanker, which stretches the length of three football fields and holds up to 1,000 hospital beds, is starting a unique humanitarian assistance visit to the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. Yesterday morning, it arrived at Pearl Harbor from San Diego for a three-day stay.

After the tsunami struck in late December 2004, Mercy was deployed for five months to the region. This time, the hospital ship is making a trip to help without the urgency of disaster or war.

It's a first for the ship, which last year provided assistance in Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea treating more than 107,000 patients, performing 466 surgeries and completing 6,900 dental procedures.

Adm. Gary Roughead, the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the U.S. military has a long history of humanitarian assistance in the Pacific.

"But this is an opportunity to bring ... us together with non-governmental organizations, which is something that we haven't been doing a lot of in the past," Roughead said. "Again, the tsunami relief just showed how powerful that can be."

Among those organizations is Aloha Medical Mission, which is bringing about 30 surgeons, other physicians and pharmacists.

MISSION OF DIPLOMACY

U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith is placing more emphasis on humanitarian and diplomatic outreach in the Pacific, with the United States hoping that by winning hearts and minds, it can win in other ways.

U.S. Pacific Command is among several entities here that are working to extend ties into the western Pacific and Asia.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ed Smith, who since August has been head of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, has made trips to eight Pacific Rim nations and is expected to visit seven more by October, the end of the fiscal year.

The center is a Defense Department program at Fort DeRussy that addresses regional and global security issues by inviting military and civilian representatives of the U.S. and 45 Asia-Pacific nations to regional security courses and conferences in Hawai'i and the region.

Also reaching out is the Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance at Tripler Army Medical Center, whose Web site says it is helping coordinate disaster responses.

The center also reports to U.S. Pacific Command.

The outreach has strategic military value.

In a South China Morning Post story published last week, Mohan Malik, a China expert with the Asia-Pacific Center, said China is seeking influence in some Pacific island groups.

"China wants to lay the groundwork for a future contest for supremacy in the South Pacific against the U.S. and Australia," Malik said. "It wants to monitor U.S. naval deployment in Guam. Through offering these countries diplomatic protection and economic assistance, it believes it can undercut U.S. influence among nations which have long been seen as being in the American camp."

MISSION TO FIGHT TERROR

Charles Morrison, president of the East-West Center, said China has been engaged in public diplomacy efforts, but he doesn't see U.S. efforts as being driven by a sense of competition with China.

Rather, humanitarian missions by the Mercy and other U.S. efforts, while not only helping impoverished people, are with an eye to preventing terrorism.

A key way to do that is to make sure that the general population is not supportive of terrorists, he said.

The assistance provided by the Mercy and 13,000 U.S. troops during the tsunami showed in positive Indonesian attitudes toward the United States. Before, the United States was viewed as having negative feelings toward Muslims, Morrison said. The U.S. involvement in Iraq added to those feelings.

"But you could really see the jump in support ratings for the United States post-tsunami," Morrison said.

Lt. Cmdr. Jason Salata, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith, said diplomacy has to be seen as a byproduct of the humanitarian effort.

"(The humanitarian focus) has to be the first thing, and if there is tangential benefit to that in the realm of diplomacy, then that's something that we value."

Capt. Joseph L. Moore, the commanding officer of the medical treatment facility on the Mercy, said more than 200 medical staff will be on board for the deployment, but the size of the contingent will vary.

MISSION OF ALOHA

Specialty diagnostic, radiology and laboratory equipment is on board the ship, which is expected to have 27 beds, two operating rooms and 12 casualty receiving stations operational.

Lum, the mission leader and coordinator for the Aloha Medical Mission team and a retired Queen's Medical Center surgeon, said he expects to do thyroid, gall bladder, hernia and breast tumor surgeries.

When the ship gets to the Philippines, it will be partnered with a medical school in Zamboanga. Aloha Medical Mission visits the Philippines twice a year to provide medical assistance. New areas will be visited by the Mercy that were out of reach because of security concerns.

"I have had a lot of experience in the Philippines, but this time we're going to places like Jolo and Tawi-Tawi," Lum said. "Those two had problems with the insurgent (group) Abu Sayyaf."

Later phases of the trip will take the ship to Banda Aceh and Kupang in Indonesia and East Timor, Lum said.

Dr. Ramon K. Sy, an ear, nose and throat specialist with Aloha Medical Mission, said, "You get the sense that the people in that area really need the help. I think it's a very good way for people from Hawai'i to show aloha for the region."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.