Comfort’s Second Stopover in Colombia Brings Joy and Relief

The U.S. Navy hospital ship benefited thousands of people in Colombia.
Carolina González, for Diálogo | 4 December 2018

Rapid Response

Thousands of Colombian and Venezuelan people received free medical attention in the town of Riohacha, La Guajira department, during the humanitarian assistance mission Enduring Promise 2018, in Colombia. (Photo: Carolina Gonzalez)

Communities of La Guajira department in northern Colombia benefited from U.S. Southern Command- (SOUTHCOM) sponsored humanitarian mission Enduring Promise 2018, aimed at regional partner nations. On its second stopover in Colombia, the mission provided specialized medical attention to Colombian citizens and Venezuelan migrants who live in the region that borders Venezuela.

Eighty-six-year-old Herminda Batista received new glasses as part of the ophthalmologic check-up she received during the Enduring Promise 2018 mission in Riohacha, La Guajira department, Colombia. (Photo: Carolina Gonzalez)

With two scheduled stopovers in the country, Enduring Promise 2018 is the United States’ largest humanitarian mission in Colombia. The first was in Turbo, Antioquia, in the Gulf of Urabá, where in one week, the Comfort’s crew assisted 5,450 patients and performed 131 surgeries aboard the ship. The second stop, in Riohacha, benefited 4,943 people with medical care, while 116 patients underwent surgery aboard. In total, more than 10,000 people received medical care over two weeks in Colombia.

Both locations were chosen for the high amount of patients in need of medical assistance. One example is Rubileth and her daughter Emily, age 3, who made it to Riohacha from Maracaibo, Venezuela, in August 2018, fleeing their country’s difficult situation.

Emily had a lipoma—a fatty lump—in her right eye. Although the condition only requires minor surgery, she couldn’t receive medical assistance in her country. “We went to many hospitals for help, but there were no ophthalmologists available. When I heard that the Comfort was coming, I said: ‘That’s it!’ I’m happy now that someone finally cares about us,” said Rubileth, who sells candy in Riohacha to subsist.

A similar story is that of Herminda Basista, age 86, who belongs to the Wayuú indigenous community, in the north of La Guajira. Basista hadn’t seen an ophthalmologist in two years, because there is no such specialty in her community. “I’m very thankful for this mission, not only for the medical examinations, but also for the new pair of glasses I received,” said Basista. “The help is good, because now with so many people coming from Venezuela there are more needs than usual. So we thank the Comfort for all the help.”

Mission success relies on coordination and organization between U.S. and local authorities, and the 2018 mission is no exception. The local governments of Antioquia and La Guajira handled the coordination and had the support of the Colombian Navy and Army.

Colombian Army General Alberto Jose Mejía, commander of Colombia’s Military Forces; Kevin Whitaker, U.S. ambassador to Colombia; and U.S. Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, attended the closing ceremony of humanitarian mission Enduring Promise 2018, in Riohacha, La Guajira department, Colombia, November 30, 2018. (Photo: U.S. Embassy in Colombia)

In Riohacha, the Colombian Army’s Comprehensive Action and Development Support Command (CAAID, in Spanish) conducted interagency coordination to organize mission security. CAAID also coordinated civil affairs activities, such as repairs in schools and help for the population.

The mission in Riohacha also kicked off construction of two classrooms in surrounding municipalities, as part of SOUTHCOM’s Humanitarian Assistance Program. Both schools that served as medical sites during the medical assistance week were also refurbished. In addition, the Comfort team donated 600 school desks and distributed more than 1,000 school kits to students in the region.

As part of the partnerships with regional countries, military medical specialists from partner nations, such as Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom, actively participated in the campaign. “This experience has been invaluable, because I was able to serve people from this locality during the Comfort’s voyage,” said Chilean Navy First Lieutenant Valentina Martinez, an officer specializing in dental care. “It’s really good for us to take part in these activities to exchange experiences among different navies and combine efforts with one purpose.”

U.S. Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, newly appointed commander of SOUTHCOM, attended the closing ceremony of Enduring Promise 2018 in Colombia in his first visit to the region as commander. “The Comfort is a visible reminder that the United States will always be here for our friends in Latin America and the Caribbean, and for Colombia as a partner,” said Adm. Faller. “For decades, the United States has stood with Colombia in the fight for peace. Now, almost two years after signing the historic peace accord with FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], we still stand with them, side by side.”

Adm. Faller concluded his speech with a message to all partner nations in the region. “The Comfort’s mission is a symbol of our enduring promise of friendship, camaraderie, and solidarity with the Americas. We honor our promise for one single reason: This is our shared home, our neighborhood, and good neighbors take care of one another.”

The Colombian military leadership also attended the mission’s closing ceremony. “In the name of our government and the Military Forces of Colombia, I’d like to thank the U.S. Embassy in Colombia and U.S. Southern Command for facilitating this humanitarian mission, which, with our help, allows us to get us closer to the community,” said Colombian Army General Alberto José Mejía, commander of the Colombian Military Forces. “These activities strengthen bonds between both nations.”

Enduring Promise 2018 continues to Honduras, the last country the Comfort will visit before returning to the United States. The ship will offer medical assistance in Puerto Castilla.

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