Crew members aboard the amphibious assault ship USS
Kearsarge get ready to perform a foreign object debris
check on the ship’s deck Aug. 11. Kearsarge was headed to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, the next day for the
first stop on its humanitarian assistance mission as part
of Operation Continuing Promise 2008.
nurses who comprise the “medical assault force” and the
tens of thousands of people whose lives they will help
improve, Operation Continuing Promise and the whole
concept of medical diplomacy is something new.
Whether it remains a novelty, or finds a lasting place in
the Pentagon’s playbook, however, is an open question.
‘I’m not worried at all’
Kearsarge’s most valuable cargo as it pulled away from the
pier in Norfolk, Va., Aug. 6 was not the tons of medicine
and relief supplies it carried, but the roughly 300 skilled
medical and engineering professionals berthed in the living spaces. Instead of a Marine Expeditionary Unit,
Kearsarge had embarked general practitioners, surgeons,
nurses, medical technicians, optometrists, ophthalmologists, civil engineers, public health experts, entomolo-gists, medical equipment repair specialists, linguists, cultural experts, journalists and even veterinarians.
The medical specialists represented all the U.S. military services; the U.S. Public Health Service; the
Canadian, Dutch and Brazilian militaries; and a range
of civilian institutions, including the plastic surgery
nonprofit organization Operation Smile, which specializes in repairing severe cleft palates.
All the medicos call Cmdr. David Damstra boss. By
day, Damstra is the commander of Fleet Surgical Team
Four. For this mission, he embarked with Capt.
Ferdinand “Fritz” Ponds, mission commander,
Continuing Promise 2008.
For Damstra, Kearsarge’s week-long transit, from
Norfolk to its first stop at Puerto Cabezas on
Nicaragua’s remote eastern coast, was a chance to get
his people organized. It was an overwhelming job.
Kearsarge medical staff represented a grab-bag of
disciplines. He had to organize them into teams and
marry them up with the right equipment, then forge
plans for getting them ashore and working.
Already there were problems. Kearsarge was underway when planners discovered shortages of generators
and interpreters. There would not be enough of either,
so some teams would have to make do without electrical power and with Spanish-speaking Kearsarge crew
members filling in for trained interpreters. One
Canadian dentist complained that without a generator,
he would be reduced to simply pulling rotten teeth
under local anesthetic.
On Aug. 7, Damstra sat back on his desk in his tiny
one-man stateroom and sighed.
“Planning for this has been exceedingly painful,” he
Some help came from 55 Kearsarge crew members
who had been with Boxer during the first phase of
Continuing Promise. From the present jumble,
Damstra was expected to achieve near-strategic results.
“Warming relations on the personal and national
level — that’s the intent,” he said. “The goodwill will
come in two ways: from the people we meet, and also
on the national level. The majority of people we won’t
see. But we do want to get the word out.”
Hence the roughly dozen journalists accompanying Kearsarge — and the local media planning to trek
to the onshore clinics to cover the medical care as it
The commodore made a point of dropping in on the
journalists nearly every day at their makeshift workspace
adjacent to Kearsarge’s always-busy gym. But for all the
media’s importance to the mission, Ponds stressed that
actions still would speak louder than words.
“Strategic communications is not what you put on
paper,” he told the journalists. “It’s what you do.”
So the emphasis was on providing top-notch care.
In the days before reaching Nicaragua, in Kearsarge’s
expansive medical bay — the largest in the Navy
behind the hospital ships — doctors and nurses sorted
pills, swapped stories and bonded. They were from a
half-dozen countries, but they all spoke two common
languages: English and that of medicine.
Lt. Cmdr. Paul Wickard, from the 7,000-strong U.S.
Public Health Service (USPHS), was “doing time” as a
prison doctor at a federal penitentiary in Georgia when
the opportunity arose to join Kearsarge for Continuing
Promise. He sorted pills alongside Cmdr. Julie King, a
USPHS nurse, and two Canadian Army nurses, Capt.
Kim Templeton and Lt. Lauren Vera.
“There’s a lot of people here with tons of experience,” Templeton said. “I’m not worried at all.”
Still, no one knew what to expect.