Jeroen De Vries, a Dutch Navy general practitioner, said
he wasn’t sure what he would be doing ashore. He said he
would count on his broad training to keep him flexible.
“We’re jacks of all trades,” Templeton said.
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Steve Heiss, a U.S.
Navy medic, amended the sentiment somewhat.
“We all feed off each other,” he said. “Everyone has
a specialty. Everyone learns off each other.”
They would have to. Despite being the third major
medical mission to Latin America in two years,
Kearsarge’s deployment was still very much a learning experience at all levels.
For the Pentagon, Chief of Naval Operations Adm.
Gary Roughead and the staff of the new U.S. Fourth
Fleet, it was a chance to see if “soft power” can actually
work to improve U.S. national security. For Ponds, the
mission was a communications trial. For Damstra, the
chief surgeon, it was test of planning skills. For the medical personnel on the front line, it would be all about
improvisation in the face of big unknowns. And for Capt.
Walter Towns, Kearsarge’s new skipper, the mission was
an exercise in human resources management.
On the morning of Aug. 11, Towns sat down in his
spacious (for a warship) office to talk about the challenges of a new command. He had taken over Kearsarge
just two days prior to its leaving Norfolk for Continuing
Promise. He said his training had prepared him well.
Besides, he was no stranger to LHDs, having served on
one as operations officer.
“What’s unique is who we have onboard,” he said,
referring to the diverse humanitarian staff.
But learning to accommodate — and work with —
doctors, engineers and assorted civilians is critical to
emerging missions in an unstable world, Towns said.
And what better place to do it than aboard a big floating box that exists to carry big groups of people
between two points, and deliver them from ship to
shore safely and efficiently.
Setting Up in Puerto Cabezas
Aug. 12 was the big day. Landing craft laden with construction material backed out of Kearsarge’s well deck
and chugged toward shore. Marine Corps CH-53E and
Navy MH-60S helicopters spun up from the flight
deck. Doctors and nurses waited along the ramp leading to the flight deck, deaf underneath their ear protectors and segmented “cranium” helmets.
By sea and by air, 100 humanitarians landed in
Puerto Cabezas in the early morning hours. While
Seabees convoyed out to construction sites with
Nicaraguan police escorts, the medicos piled into a
school bus for the short ride to the local high school,
which would double as the central health clinic for the
next two weeks.
Cmdr. Brian Alexander, an optometrist from Portsmouth
Naval Hospital, checks on Ches Lacallo after surgery to
remove an abnormal growth from his right eye aboard
Kearsarge. Kearsarge is the primary platform for the
Caribbean phase of Continuing Promise, an equal-partnership mission involving the United States, Canada,
the Netherlands, Brazil, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia,
Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sugat Patel, from Portsmouth Naval
Medical Center, was in charge of the clinic. He raced
between classrooms as, inside, specialists set up stations
for optometry, dentistry, surgical consulting, medicine
distribution and general care. Each station was supposed
to have an interpreter, but there weren’t always enough to
go around, so “terps” were always on their feet, running
to fill any gaps. By noon, everyone was drenched in sweat.
Hundreds of patients were lined up outside, corralled by Nicaraguan soldiers. Soon the Kearsarge
people had settled into a steady rhythm, seeing patients at
a combined rate of around one per minute. Among the
patients were Lizzie Mae Morris, her two children and
aged mother. Morris said her eyes had been bothering
her. She had been waiting for more than five hours for
her consultation, but was still quite chipper.
“I’m glad,” she said in nearly perfect English. “This
is a very nice service. Sometimes we need medicine
and cannot get any.”
Day one ended at 3 p.m. Patel gathered his people,
congratulated them, and counted heads for the ride back
to the landing zone.
“Things are going well,” he said.
There would be setbacks. Maintenance problems with
helicopters and landing craft, interpreter shortages and
growing skepticism about the mission’s intentions in the
regional press would complicate Continuing Promise in
the coming days. But on day one, there had been no
major disasters, and some 300 Nicaraguans were slightly
better off, and certainly more favorable toward Americans
and their allies than they were before. ■