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24 January 2005

U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Sails To Aid Tsunami Victims

USNS Mercy prepared to care for wide variety of patients ashore and at sea

By Jane A. Morse
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy is heading to the Indian Ocean to aid tsunami victims in the region.

Its relief efforts will be coordinated with the specific requests of the governments of those countries hard hit by the December 26 disaster, according to a Department of Defense spokesman.

"Mercy has been forward deployed to support humanitarian aid efforts currently in progress," he said. "While Mercy's mission continues to be refined based on rapidly changing health and medical conditions throughout the region, we believe Mercy will serve as an enabling platform to assist humanitarian operations ashore while host nations continue to recover medical infrastructure capabilities ashore."

The ship, which is part of Operation Unified Assistance relief efforts being conducted by the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), can accommodate as many as 1,000 hospital beds.  But for this mission, the Mercy has tailored her equipment and personnel to provide care both ashore and at sea to treat a wide variety of patients -- from young children to the elderly.

Capabilities will include surgical and intensive care; orthopedics; dental care; optometry; pediatric care; obstetrics and gynecology.  Supportive services will include x-ray capabilities, pharmacy and laboratory testing (including water).

Although the Mercy has 12 operating rooms, it is expected that the focus of care for this mission will be on patients suffering from illness or infections, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Military Sealift Command.

About 275 medical and medical support personnel are sailing aboard the Mercy.  The 894-foot-long hospital ship left its homeport in San Diego on January 5 and is expected to reach the Indian Ocean region by the beginning of February.  Additional hospital staff will join the ship en route.

The Mercy is normally kept in reduced operating status with an on-board civilian mariner crew of 12 and a hospital support staff of 58 military personnel who care for the ship's hospital facilities, equipment and supplies.  It was ordered to activate January 1 by the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  When ordered to activate, the ship must be ready to sail within five days.

The Mercy is one of two Navy hospital ships.  Her sister ship, the USNS Comfort, is berthed in Baltimore, Maryland, and has not been ordered to activate.

According to PACOM authorities, tsunami recovery missions are being gradually transitioned from military operations to professional relief organizations, including those from the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations and those in the host nations.  U.S. military forces will, however, support specific relief efforts in host nations as requested by their governments, according to PACOM sources.

At a January 10 press conference in Hawaii where the Mercy was loading supplies, PACOM Commander Admiral Thomas Fargo said the Mercy represents a "very imaginative way" in which a military facility can serve as a platform for the contributions of private citizens and nongovernmental organizations.

U.S. Navy hospital ships are normally used to treat American soldiers injured in combat; the Mercy was deployed for an extended period during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991.  The Mercy also participates in annual at-sea exercises along the West Coast of the United States.

For more information on PACOM activities to aid tsunami victims under "Operation Unified Assistance," see http://www.pacom.mil/special/0412asia/index.shtml

For general information see U.S. Response to Tsunami

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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