Those who think that because the hospital ship USNS Comfort belongs to the U.S. Navy, its crew — which includes doctors, dentists, surgeons, and other members of the health care field, among others — is composed only of U.S. professionals and military personnel are mistaken. You don’t have to look far to find many Latinos who are proudly part of U.S. Southern Command- (SOUTHCOM) sponsored Continuing Promise 2022 mission.
Such is the case of U.S. Navy Commander Katiana Cruet, a pediatric dentist from San Juan, Puerto Rico, who is on her first assignment aboard a hospital ship. “I feel a lot of pride and honor to be part of the Continuing Promise 22 team, and to see how so many agencies come together for the same purpose and to work together as a team, hand-in-hand with the military, for the success of a common mission. It’s a great thing, and I didn’t expect to be part of something so big.”
So too thinks U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman and surgical assistant Bryan Pulgarín, who was born in Medellín, and who sees his return to Colombia to help his countrymen as “a dream come true.”
First time in Cartagena
The USNS Comfort arrived for the first time in Cartagena, Colombia, on November 11, where it stayed for one week to provide health services to those in need. Among the services offered free of charge were preventive medicine, optometry exams, general and orthopedic surgery, and dental treatments, among others, as well as public health education.
Mayor of Cartagena William Dau Chamat told Diálogo at an event on November 11, which celebrated the arrival of the USNS Comfort, that “for the city, the visit of this ship is very significant to highlight the brotherhood that exists between Colombia and the United States. We have worked in different cooperation programs, and I think this is one of the most important, and we are doing very well.”
For U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Francisco Palmieri it was “an honor to be here and I am very proud to welcome the Comfort, part of the Continuing Promise 2022 mission. This mission will improve the lives of thousands of people here in Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast. Medical personnel from the United States and Colombia will work to care for the most vulnerable population; these medical experts will also share their knowledge with their colleagues in Cartagena.”
The importance of volunteers
The USNS Comfort has the participation of nearly 1,000 military medics, 80 U.S. National Guard soldiers, and 50 members of the U.S. Marine Corps who are a dedicated security team protecting the ship and personnel on board. “Force protection is a key aspect of military operations and facilitates the use of medical and life-saving assistance that is the focus of this mission,” Lieutenant General David G. Bellon, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South, told Diálogo.
In addition, the ship has 90 volunteers from partner countries, including medical personnel and interpreters. On land, volunteers play a fundamental role in the success of the mission, as was the case of Daniela Castillo, a 21-year-old medical sciences student from Bogotá, who served as an interpreter to improve communication between U.S. doctors and Colombian patients. “In addition to helping in this beautiful mission, I will take from this experience the connections I was able to make and the smiles on the faces of the patients treated in the medical check-ups of the Continuing Promise mission.”
Health care was available at the Antonia Santos School and the Combat Coliseum. Some 500 patients were seen daily in each of these temporary clinics. U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, SOUTHCOM commander, toured the Combat Coliseum during her visit of the Continuing Promise mission in Cartagena. Gen. Richardson was greeted with warm applause and spoke with several patients. “The first person I had the pleasure of meeting was a Korean War veteran who served in the 52nd Battalion and will be 91 years old shortly. He still has shrapnel in his arms and legs and can barely walk, but he is still walking. He was very grateful for the medical care he received,” Gen. Richardson said.
The USNS Comfort also offered medical care aboard. In the ship’s 12 operating rooms, on the first day alone, medical personnel carried out 19 low complexity surgical procedures with rapid recovery, said Hospital Corpsman Pulgarín, who added that procedures included urology, ophthalmology, general surgery, plastic surgery, orthopedics, as well as maxillofacial, otorhinolaryngology, pediatric, and gynecological surgery.
Missions in Colombia
This was USNS Comfort’s seventh mission in Colombia, which in the past stopped in Tumaco and Buenaventura, the country’s two main Pacific ports, as well as in the Caribbean cities of Santa Marta and Turbo. “It should be noted that this action is carried out in coordination with the Colombian government. This is, among others, a significant demonstration of the commitment of the United States with our country and with the entire South American region,” General Helder Fernán Giraldo Bonilla, commander of the Colombian Military Forces, said.
The hospital ship set sail on the afternoon of November 19 to continue its Latin American trip, with its next port of call in the Dominican Republic, after previous stops in Guatemala and Honduras.