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Navy scales back humanitarian mission to Latin America, will treat fewer patients

The hospital ship USNS Comfort arrives at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015.

ADAM HENDERSON/U.S. NAVY

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 26, 2017

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The U.S. military is scaling back its humanitarian mission to Latin America, where it plans to visit the fewest number of countries and treat the fewest number of patients since Operation Continuing Promise began in 2007.

The Navy is sending a speedy transport ship carrying medical personnel to three countries beginning Thursday instead of the much larger hospital ship USNS Comfort that provided care in 11 countries in 2015 when the mission had a budget more than three times as large.

The United States regularly provides medical aid, veterinary care and other assistance as part of Operation Continuing Promise, although the missions don’t occur every year. The operation is used to build goodwill and partnerships with host nations and to help maintain the United States’ influence in the region.

This year’s mission is expected to treat about 15,000 patients, compared with about 100,000 patients in 2015.

Using a smaller ship with fewer personnel aboard over a shorter time will save money. The Navy says the budget for this year’s Operation Continuing Promise is about $11 million, compared with the $40 million that was budgeted for Continuing Promise 2015.

Beyond military personnel, nongovernmental organizations like Virginia Beach-based Operation Smile typically embark aboard participating ships and provide free medical care. While some NGOs will still participate in this year’s mission, Operation Smile said this week that after “thoughtful deliberations” it will not be among them.

“Our focus is on providing as many surgeries as we can for children with cleft lips and cleft palates. Without a hospital ship as the host, we would not be able to provide those surgeries during Continuing Promise,” Operation Smile spokeswoman Lisa Jardanhazy said in an email.

The Norfolk-based Comfort contains a 1,000-bed medical treatment facility and was used during Operation Continuing Promise in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2015. The ship was scheduled to participate in 2013, but automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration canceled that mission.

The Comfort is now scheduled to go to a Boston shipyard for a planned overhaul from March through May, according to the Military Sealift Command.

This year the ship leading Operation Continuing Promise is the Virginia Beach-based USNS Spearhead. The Spearhead is an expeditionary fast transport ship that’s designed to quickly move people and cargo, and can be used as a launch platform for a variety of missions.

“Though not a hospital ship, USNS Spearhead is a unique and highly-flexible vessel that permits expeditious ship-to-shore movement of personnel who will treat patients ashore in Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras during the Continuing Promise 2017 humanitarian- and civic-assistance mission,” Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the Navy’s 4th Fleet, said in an email.

The ship is prepared for disaster relief, if necessary, Ruiz said.
The Spearhead was scheduled to leave Mayport, Fla., on Thursday after picking up medical personnel and others who will provide assistance. They will provide preventative medical treatments, dental screenings and treatment, optometry screenings, eyeglass distribution and women’s health services, among other things.

This is the first time the Spearhead has participated in the program, but it’s not the first time a ship other than a hospital ship has.

The amphibious assault ships USS Boxer and USS Kearsarge led the mission in 2008. In 2010, it was the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, where embarked personnel treated more than 43,000 primary care patients in eight countries.

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