On Friday, February 1, I hosted a group of USAID staff aboard the USNS Comfort—one of the U.S. Navy’s (USN) two hospital ships. The Comfort is a state of the art, fully equipped floating hospital, with 12 operating rooms and capacity for 900 patients. While her primary mission is to provide rapid, flexible, and mobile acute medical and surgical services to support the U.S. military, she can also be called in to support in disaster or humanitarian relief. In 2010 the Comfort supported the USAID-led disaster response mission after the Haiti earthquake; her sister ship, the USNS Mercy, provided assistance after the 2005 tsunami in South East Asia. USAID personnel, Dr. Clydette Powell and Dr. Bob Ferris traveled on the Comfort for Operation Unified Response: Haiti. This was the first time USAID had sailed with a mission. Their knowledge of Haiti and contacts with the Embassy and USAID mission were instrumental in the successful care and transfer of Comfort patients.
In addition, both ships provide humanitarian and civic assistance every two years on goodwill missions—”Continuing Promise,” which travels to South and Central America, and “Pacific Partnership,” which tours the South Pacific. These deployments provide training for U.S. military personnel and partner nation forces while providing valuable services to communities in need. Later this month, the Comfort will embark on Continuing Promise ’13, and take part in medical, dental and civic engagements in eight countries.
In my capacity as the Navy Liaison Officer at USAID, I help facilitate coordination between USAID and the U.S. Navy in the design and implementation of field activities—such as the Continuing Promise and Pacific Partnership ship visits. I also help to keep the lines of communication open between the Navy and the agency in global health activities, disaster response and conflict prevention. As a Nurse Corps Officer, I’m focused on helping to ensure that USN international health activities are coordinated with USAID missions and align with U.S. development objectives. My home within the agency is within the Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation, but I work with many colleagues throughout the agency, including the Global Health Bureau and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is responsible for leading and coordinating U.S. Government’s humanitarian response to disasters overseas.
Visiting the Comfort provided the opportunity for a firsthand view of the capacity and capabilities of the hospital ship, knowledge that provides USAID staff with a foundation for future decisions on crisis or disaster response. In a disaster, the Comfort can be called on to support the USAID’s lead in a response. While many have read about what it can do, sometimes seeing is believing. It also marked a return for me to the ship—in 2009 I had the privilege of sailing with the Comfort for Continuing Promise 09, and less than six months later I served again on the Comfort in support of the Haiti earthquake response.
Captain Colleen Gallagher is a Nurse Corps Officer with the U.S. Navy. She is the first Navy Liaison Officer to serve at USAID, a position she has held since 2011.