Interview with CP’11 Mission Commander, Captain Brian C. Nickerson, U.S. Navy
By Dialogo July 11, 2011
The U.S. Navy’s hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) anchored in Colombia from 2-12 July in support of the humanitarian civic assistance mission Continuing Promise 2011 (CP11). During its visit, Diálogo had the opportunity to talk to Mission Commander Captain Brian C. Nickerson, U.S. Navy.
DIÁLOGO: Why was the Comfort sent to Colombia?
CAPT. NICKERSON: USNS COMFORT (T-AH 20) came to Colombia as part of Continuing Promise 2011 mission. Continuing Promise is an annual Humanitarian Civic Assistance deployment to the Caribbean and Central and South America. COMFORT will visit nine ports throughout the region working hand in hand with host nation representatives, partner nations, and a variety of governmental and non-governmental agencies to train in civil-military operations while conducting subject matter expert exchange, medical, dental, veterinary, and engineering activities with host nation citizens and professionals. Missions such as this also help foster cooperation, collaboration, and interoperability. The very first step in why was the COMFORT sent to Colombia is that the Colombian government requested we visit. We think of ourselves as invited guests of Colombian people and we were honored to be able to visit Colombia.
DIÁLOGO: Who determines these missions and how?
CAPT. NICKERSON: Ship visits for Continuing Promise deployments are coordinated beginning in the very early stages of the planning phase with Host Nation government officials from regional countries, who nominate locations for the mission through the military assistance and advisory groups at local U.S. Embassies. In this instance, the Government of Colombia requested that we visit. A variety of factors are taken into account but all requests are given careful consideration in planning the ship’s deployment. If the ship is unable to support a nominated location during a Continuous Promise deployment, other options are explored with the requesting country.
DIÁLOGO: Is the Comfort subordinated to any Command specifically?
CAPT. NICKERSON: USNS COMFORT (T-AH 20) is one of two hospital ships operated by the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. The Military Sealift Command is headquartered in Washington DC. For the Continuing Promise 2011 deployment, USNS COMFORT (T-AH 20) is assigned to Commander, United States Naval Forces Southern Command/Commander, United States FOURTH Fleet, who is the naval component of United States Southern Command.
DIÁLOGO: What is the importance for the U.S. to make the Comfort available for missions in the partner nations?
CAPT. NICKERSON: Continuing Promise 2011 is the sixth Continuing Promise deployment to the Caribbean and Central and South America since its inception in 2007. This annual deployment is only one of a variety of ways the United States demonstrates its commitment to the region.
DIÁLOGO: Is there any exchange of information, technologies and techniques between the crew members and the countries visited?
CAPT. NICKERSON: In each country we conduct a series of subject matter expert exchanges (SMEE). Topics are chosen by the host nation and span a variety of areas including medical, dental, biomedical repair, veterinary, nutrition, construction, sanitation, water purification, search and rescue, security and force protection. This list is not all inclusive but will give you a sense of the types of areas that are usually requested. SMEEs are intended to encourage a two-way exchange of information and provide opportunities to learn and exchange best practices between countries.
We also conduct exchanges where a specific discipline, medical, dental, veterinary will spend the day together either aboard the COMFORT or in a host nation facility or educational institution. When time permits we do both.
DIÁLOGO: Are there any Latin American nationals as part of the crew?
CAPT. NICKERSON: We have a number of crew members who can trace their heritage and cultural background to the Caribbean and Central and South America.
We also have Partner Nation representatives who embarked COMFORT as part of the Continuing Promise mission team from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru.
Additionally, we have Partner Nations from Canada and as far away as the Netherlands.
DIÁLOGO: How important is it that the ship’s crew understand the language and culture of the region?
CAPT. NICKERSON: We find this particular aspect of the mission very important. Although we have a portion of the crew who speak Spanish, we have devoted a large portion of our underway time to Spanish classes and cultural awareness education since departing Norfolk, Virginia in April. We believe that one of the first principles of care is to be able to speak common courtesies in the host nation’s language. We have also learned that while a large number of countries in Central and South America speak the same language, it is their culture that makes them different. We believe that understanding that culture is a prerequisite to building relationships and providing proper care. We also invite our partner nation officers from the countries we are visiting to share their country with us through their eyes so that we may know and understand the local citizens before arriving.
DIÁLOGO: The ship’s mission was very clear during the days following the earthquake that devastated Haiti, that is, the Comfort was used in a strictly humanitarian mission. In what other instances is the ship used?
CAPT. NICKERSON: COMFORT’s primary mission is first and foremost to provide combat casualty care for United States Department of Defense missions throughout the world.
COMFORT’s secondary mission is humanitarian assistance such as Continuing Promise; and disaster relief response such as Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE in Haiti. COMFORT has also deployed in times of a U.S. crisis such as Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept 11, 2001.
From our experience in the Haitian earthquake disaster, we learned that the response to a natural disaster in another country is enhanced from the partnerships formed during a Humanitarian Assistance mission.
DIÁLOGO: Is there something you want to share with the military of the countries in the region?
CAPT. NICKERSON: Although Continuing Promise is primarily a humanitarian assistance mission, we still look for and welcome the opportunity to exchange information, cooperate, collaborate, and build relationships with each country’s military. We have had the distinct privilege of working with the militaries/police in Jamaica, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. The importance of these relationships and interoperability cannot be over emphasized. What we build and practice during times of calm will be tested during times of regional crisis. A great example of this is the search and rescue training that COMFORT conducted one day with the Colombia National Police (CNP), and which was put to use the very next day during the medical evacuation of four injured Colombian citizens.