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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 21, 2006

Floating hospital charts new seas

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

The Navy ship Mercy, at Pearl Harbor, just finished four months of humanitarian aid in Southeast Asia without the urgency of disaster or war.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Capt. Joseph Moore, right, presents a plaque to Hawai'i doctor Carl H. Lum during shipboard ceremony honoring the 500 civilians and military personnel who served on the mission. Lum, a volunteer, performed about five major surgeries a day in the Philippines.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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About 200 sailors and other military personnel were honored yesterday aboard the Mercy for serving on a four-month mission.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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PEARL HARBOR The USNS Mercy pulled into port yesterday following a four-month goodwill tour to the Pacific Rim that could signal a new mission for the hospital ship.

The Mercy's crew of military and civilian medical providers treated more than 60,000 people and performed more than 1,000 surgeries during port stops in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and East Timor.

Among the onshore and on-ship locations where care was provided were Jolo, Zamboanga and Tawi-Tawi in the southern Philippines, where rebel activity makes humanitarian assistance difficult.

About 14 Philippines military personnel were killed in Tawi-Tawi the week before the medical team arrived in June, said Dr. Carl H. Lum, a surgeon from Hawai'i who volunteered for the mission.

And two weeks ago, an attack in Jolo killed about a half dozen other military members from the country, he said.

"We had high security alert and everywhere we went we were guarded by Filipino and American military troops," Lum said. "On land we wore flak jackets and steel helmets and we moved around only with convoys. We had Humvees in front of us, and Humvees in the back of us."

There were no attacks on the medical team, and it was able to treat a lot of people and perform surgeries on goiters and hernias and repair cleft lips and cataracts, Lum said.

"The surgery you do changes the life of the people completely," said Lum, who was with the Aloha Medical Mission. "If we weren't there, they wouldn't have the necessary surgery because none of the aid groups want to go there anymore because of security problems."

About 200 sailors, other military personnel and some of the up to 300 individuals with "non-governmental organizations," or NGOs, who took part in the humanitarian assistance mission were recognized yesterday by Adm. Gary Roughead, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, in a shipboard ceremony.

The organizations volunteering aboard Mercy included 32 individuals from Aloha Medical Mission, most of whom were from Hawai'i; Project HOPE; Operation Smile; Tzu Chi Foundation; International Relief Teams; the University of California at San Diego Pre-Dental Society and others.

"It was a voyage of teamwork and cooperation, but most importantly, it was a voyage of service and hope, and compassion brought together by so many, many people," Roughead said.

The medical team administered "tens of thousands" of shots and issued more than 60,000 pairs of eyeglasses, Roughead said.

The distinctively-marked converted supertanker, with its huge red crosses, stretches the length of three football fields and can accommodate up to 1,000 hospital beds.

The Mercy was delivered in 1986 and its sister ship, the Comfort, in 1987. The San Diego-based Mercy deployed to the Middle East for eight months in 1990 in support of the Gulf War.

After the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, Mercy was sent to the region for five months to provide humanitarian support and treated 107,000 patients in Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea.

The mission generated such positive feedback that officials decided to send the ship back this year without the urgency of disaster or war.

The Pentagon now prefers to airlift mobile combat hospitals into war zones instead of dispatching slow-moving hospital ships, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. War casualties can be rapidly airlifted to receive advanced medical care in Germany and the United States.

Testifying this month before Congress on Islamic terrorism, Thomas M. Sanderson, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested building 10 hospital ships similar to Mercy to rebuild relations with Muslim countries.

"A lot of news is made of individual Iraqi children who are flown to the U.S. for special medical procedures, so imagine the impact of placing these hospital ships on rotation the world over," Sanderson said.

Capt. Joseph L. Moore, the commander of the medical treatment facility on Mercy, said higher echelons in the military will decide if Mercy makes a repeat humanitarian assistance trip to the region again next year.

"We're certainly hopeful that it will happen again," he said.

The medical equipment on the Mercy is state-of-art, Moore said.

Lum, who performed five major surgeries a day while the ship was in the Philippines, said "it's nice doing the surgery in a very up-to-date operating room. The operating rooms on the ship are as good as anywhere in the U.S."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.