The Beginnings of Hope

Part II in a multi-part series about Operation Continuing Promise.

The “NGO Cafe” came online yesterday. The two IT guys who run the ship’s network have done awesome work to get us our own space with a level of internet freedom and access that is denied to the ship’s crew — we can actually look at our gmail.

Earlier this morning Capt. Frank Ponds, Commander of Amphibious Squadron Eight, stopped by NGO cafe. He talked about the a multi-national, trans-agency nature of this mission. There are military medical personnel from Canada, the Netherlands, France, and Brazil. There are commissioned personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service. A coordinator from Project HOPE is on board and has others flying to join us in Nicaragua. Operation Smile will join us down there. And then there are the bloggers.

Capt. Ponds spoke about the hope for this mission. It’s not just a mission of delivering medical supplies, performing 30-40 surgeries per country, rebuilding infrastructure, and other tasks to accomplish; this mission is about renewing our commitment to our western hemisphere neighbors. This is about projecting power, but also care and concern. This is about going down there and extending a helping hand in the hope that we never have to bring this ship down laden with Marines waiting to be deployed on a different sort of mission.

View of the ship from the helo on our approach.

I boarded the ship yesterday with a host of distinguished visitors — “DVs” they call them. There were representatives from various U.S. government agencies and departments, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health, Admiral (four-star) Joxel Garcia, consuls from a number of Latin American countries, local Miami media, Univision, international Latin American media. They held a press conference which was mostly in Spanish so I didn’t catch most of it and my recorder failed to function properly for reasons still puzzling to me. A reporter from the Dominican Republic — one of the nations this mission will visit — asked some questions, but conlcuded with a sincere statement of thanks for the aid we intend to bring to her home and the five other nations.

After the DVs returned to land I spoke with some of the international military contingent last night. One Canadian soldier is along to learn how the U.S. Navy coordinates medical missions. He does similar work for the Canadian military and wants to learn how our Navy does it on such a large scale. A Dutch naval officer and family doctor is along to help out as well as to learn how we conduct such operations. They are both in their first joint military operation with the U.S. Navy and have had a good experience thus far.

But the 1,032 members of the ship’s crew for this mission gives this ship its life, Capt. Ponds says. Without them it just floats in the water and does nothing. They clearly come from all over, got into the Navy for different reasons, have different plans once getting out, and different opinions about being in.

That crew has been an impressive slice of America thus far:

As I was typing, the Commander of the vessel, Capt. Towns, stopped by the NGO cafe to check on our arrangement and make sure it is an acceptable working environment. Better than I had imagined. He’s an energetic Chicago man with intensity in his eyes. I have it on good authority that he is well liked by the crew.

The two IT guys who made this post and pictures possible by setting up NGO cafe remind me of so many other IT types — brash and confident, but eager to make things work out. One plans on biking cross country after getting out of the Navy in a few months.

I met a hearing and vision test technician who is on her first humanitarian mission and first time on a ship. She is excited about the mission and eager to get to the nations and help these people out.

I spoke with a dutiful EN3 stationed with the Landing Craft, Utility (LCU), who was eager to talk about his craft and do his job — who knew 14 men could live independently for two weeks on one of those landing crafts? He spoke enthusiastically about having taken part in Operation African Partnership Stations last year. Some west African nations called our Navy for assistance and we went over, helped them rebuild schools and other buildings, and helped train their Navy in small boat repairs and engineering. That mission will occur again next year, deploying in January.

Dinner was more interesting thanks to the punchy information warfare officers who kept us laughing.

One Information Officer was incredulous that anyone would pay his own way to go underway on a ship. He’s on his fourth on-ship deployment in two years and may never look at a ship again when he gets out of the Navy. He joked (half-joked) that when he bumped into an anesthesiologist earlier that day he offered to be a guinea pig for sedative tests and would be willing to be put under for the duration of the trip.

I can’t fail to mention the public affairs officer and his staff who have coordinated our participation in the mission and helped get us squared away with lodging and have helped give some idea of how to get from here to there on board.

I’ve got a lot more of the ship to explore and people to meet before we arrive in Nicaragua on Monday, but so far so good.

Disclosure: Crowe recently resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy Chaplain Candidate program and is blogging for RS as a civilian aboard the USS Kearsarge.