Comfort

by Mark Elrod Most Americans are probably not aware that the United States Navy maintains two floating hospitals.

In some cases, names actually do speak for themselves.

The USSN Mercy and the USSN Comfort were built in the 1980s for rapid deployment to disaster areas and war zones.

By modern naval standards, the Mercy and Comfort are too slow, too big, and too vulnerable to attack. Neither vessel carries offensive weapons but each is protected by international law, just as other hospitals are.

Each ship has about a dozen operating theaters, 1,000 hospital beds, and can be activated within five days. Even when not deployed, the Comfort has one of the largest trauma facilities in the United State.

The Comfort has the capacity to desalinate 300,000 gallons of seawater a day.

The medical professionals aboard the Mercy and Comfort are civilians from the Military Sealift Command.

In recent years, the Comfort has deployed to the Persian Gulf, the US Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, New York City after the 9/11 attacks, and to Port-au-Prince, Haiti in January 2010.

That’s where I first saw the Comfort.

She’s an impressive site, particularly when accepting helicopters and earthquake victims as quickly as possible on the Comfort’s single landing pad.

When I arrived in Port-au-Prince, a week or so after the January 12, 2010 earthquake, the city was still digging out from what was probably the worst urban disaster in human history. The magnitude 7.0 quake killed an estimated 230,000 Haitians and directly affected 3 million of the country’s 9.5 million citizens.

Nothing prepared me for what I saw in Haiti when I arrived there from the Dominican Republic after a 9-hour ride in the back of a two-ton truck with a team of American relief workers.

On a good day, Haiti is a mess. On January 22, 2010, Haiti looked like a complete catastrophe to me.

Tornadoes in Arkansas, Hurricane Katrina, floods in the Mississippi Delta all paled in comparison to what I saw in Haiti.

It may go without saying but natural disasters seem to hit developing countries the hardest. Of course, that’s a matter of perspective.

I’ve never had a natural disaster flatten my home or destroy my way of life in a matter of minutes.

I went to Port-au-Prince representing my university to learn how our community could help the people of Haiti. Our students would eventually raise over $250,000 for tents and tarps to give shelter to the homeless of Port-au-Prince.

I’ve never been prouder of my Christian community.

My chief qualification for going to Haiti was that I had a valid passport, and I knew where Haiti was located. My friend Philip Holsinger, a photojournalist with contacts in Haiti and Port-au-Prince, led the way.

Phil knew people in Haiti and that was important.

On the first morning, as we surveyed the devastation in downtown Port-au-Prince, we ran into some soldiers from the American 82nd Airborne guarding an intersection near the completely demolished Presidential Palace.

Other than their weapons and fatigues, they looked a lot like the students I see in my classroom every day.

I was compelled to talk to them at the barricades, as they stood surrounded by young, frustrated Haitians men who all wanted to know when Obama was coming with jobs and money.

A couple of them were from Georgia.

One was from Chicago. We talked about the Cubs.

They were all scared. I could feel it.

I couldn’t blame them, in spite of the fact they were all better armed than I was. None of them spoke more than a few phrases of Creole, and they told me that the locals usually met that with ridicule.

Not exactly what you want when you’re doing crowd control in a devastated and desperate country.

I told them I was really proud of them, and I meant it.

Peacekeeping is complicated, to say the least.

I thought about those young paratroopers and the USSN Comfort in Port-au-Prince harbor a few weeks ago when a student asked me if I thought nations like the United States ever took actions that were not motivated by pure power politics.

I told the student about my trip and that the USSN Comfort wasn’t in Haiti to conquer Hispaniola—it was there to bring to bring healing to the hurting.

Quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot to conquer in Haiti, and I don’t think most Americans are all that interested in adding another star to the US flag any time soon.

I told the student that the Comfort’s presence in Haiti had made me prouder of anything I had seen the United States do up to that point in my life.

Like actual human beings, nation-states are bundles of inconsistencies. We want to be compassionate but we usually take care of our own first.

More often than not, empathy doesn’t come naturally to us.

This may be because the logic of realpolitik demands that we look at every foreign policy decision as something that could either enhance or threaten our security in the international system.

The anarchical character of the hostile planet we live on demands this, and as a result, our national leaders accept power politics as the status quo. To act on moral principle is to invite disaster and may work against the basic survival instincts of states and individuals.

But few nations in the world have the technological capacity to create vessels like the Comfort.

And even fewer nations in the world have the empathy to use vessels like the Comfort to help the helpless.

At the end of the day, the Comfort, it’s crew, and its tax-paying owners send an important message to the rest of us.

“Comfort” isn’t just the name of a ship.

It’s an action.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

Take it to heart.