Three units of the Chilean Navy joined the hospital ship USNS Comfort’s crew to support U.S. Southern Command-sponsored humanitarian mission Enduring Promise 2018. The Chilean military came aboard the medical campaign on the second half of the boat’s trip in Latin America.
The three units of the Chilean Navy, Lieutenant Commander Jaime Gaete, Lieutenant Valentina Martínez, and Petty Officer Second Class Juan Pinilla, boarded the ship on November 16. The service members, who carried out duties as technical physicians and provided dental services, stayed on board until December, when the ship returned to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia.
Through the participation of its units, the Chilean Navy sought to learn about long-range missions and exchange knowledge. The support of the Chilean institution also served to demonstrate the friendship between the partner nations.
“We are cooperating with the U.S. Navy to the best of our ability,” Lt. Cmdr. Gaete told Diálogo. “The idea is to learn from them about logistics and organization, but also to contribute with what we know and have learned during this time. We know the pillars of the [Chilean] Navy’s Health Directorate, and our idea is to work accordingly, to the best of our ability.”
Between October and December 2018, the USNS Comfort conducted an 11-week humanitarian mission in Central and South America, providing medical care on board and in medical sites on the ground. The mission helped relieve pressure on national medical systems, caused partly by the increase in Venezuelan migrants escaping from the situation in their country.
The crew of more than 900 medical personnel, including U.S. and partner nation military service members and nongovernmental volunteers, examined thousands of patients in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Honduras. Chilean health personnel joined the mission in the port of Turbo, Colombia, after accepting a formal invitation from the U.S. Embassy in Chile.
“We got to work with an organized ship that cooperates with several countries, where everything has gone smoothly,” said Lt. Cmdr. Gaete. “Given its size, the ship can’t reach any port, and disembarkation is done entirely by helicopter or boat,” the officer added, highlighting the operation’s efficiency.
During more than a month on board, the Chilean officers helped people in Turbo and Riohacha, Colombia, as well as in Trujillo, Honduras, with dental care as part of the 15-member dental team. For his part, Petty Officer 2nd Class Pinilla worked as a transfusion specialist at the blood bank.
“What surprised me the most during this mission is the number of patients who live in remote areas and don’t have access to health services,” Sgt. Pinilla said. “[I’m also surprised] to see the indigenous populations that don’t get assistance because they can’t communicate due to their language, and the support the [Colombian] government has offered by being present in these vulnerable areas and providing support with all the necessary resources.”
Lt. Cmdr. Gaete explained that many dental cases were basic, including cleaning and tooth extraction. However, some patients needed more urgent assistance.
“[There were] many reconstructive procedures, many children, and a few cases of tongue cancer, which had to be referred to the ship to remove the tumors,” the officer said. “In general, people are grateful. We try to relieve pain as much as we can, and, most importantly, to eliminate infections. […] Seeing people so grateful, who understand what we are doing, is very rewarding.”
According to the Chilean officers Colombia’s stops stood out, as the service members were able to observe the differences between the patients of each region. “It’s been very different,” Lt. Cmdr. Gaete said. “Turbo is a town with a lot of low-income Colombian people, and Riohacha is a town one hour away from the border with Venezuela. It consists of a very vulnerable Venezuelan population, many of them helpless and without access to health care.”
The experience was rewarding, and the navy service members feel lucky to have been a part of the humanitarian mission. For Lt. Cmdr. Gaete, the privilege was doubled, as the officer participated in the mission of the USNS Mercy in Asia and the Pacific in April 2018.
“Personally, it’s been a unique experience, since I was able to increase my knowledge professionally, getting to know other cultures, assisting on the ground with the different health conditions in each town we went to,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Pinilla said. “As a member of the Chilean Navy, it’s been a great experience. The love and affection of the people we helped will without a doubt be one of my best memories from this mission for the rest of my life.”