ARLINGTON, Va. — Everyone, friend and enemy alike, bleeds red.
That’s the attitude of the medical staff of the USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed floating hospital ship stationed in the Arabian Gulf to provide advanced medical care, not only to coalition members, but to anyone gravely injured in the course of war.
In fact, more than half of the patients treated so far have been Iraqis, both civilians and Enemy Prisoners of War, or EPWs, Capt. Charles Blankenship told Pentagon reporters Friday via a satellite link with the ship.
“We’re trained to take care of anyone who is sick or injured,” Blankenship, the commanding officer of the Comfort’s military treatment facility, said. “Everyone gets the same standard of care.”
Since the war started March 20, 288 patients have been treated, according to the Comfort’s staff.
Of those, 121 have been Americans, two were NATO allies, and 167 have been Iraqis, including 39 Iraqi civilians and 128 enemy prisoners of war.
There have been some special problems associated with a shipload of sick enemy prisoners, according to Cmdr. Tommy Stewart, the Comfort’s head nurse.
Hospital environments are rife with settings and objects that could be devastating in the wrong hands — razor-sharp scalpels, hypodermics that could be loaded with tranquilizers, oxygen tanks that could become literal bombs — the list is almost endless.
In order to cope with “safety concerns,” Stewart said, the ship implemented precautions, starting with augmenting the Comfort’s security staff so that there is one guard every three to four EPWs.
Inside the EPW wards, all equipment that could be used as a weapon is removed, Stewart said. At least two masters-at-arms are on duty in such wards at all times, one stationed in the front of the room and the other at the back, he said.
Meanwhile, anyone who offers care to the EPWs has to follow special procedures, Stewart said.
For example, before approaching an EPW’s bed, the caregiver must remove his belt and strip uniforms and pockets of pens, pencils or any other sharp objects that could be seized and used as a weapon.
As the caregiver is attending the patient, “There is always someone to observe the [caregiver’s] back and blind side,” Stewart said.
Some of the potential for EPWs to cause mayhem is reduced simply because patients who come aboard the Comfort are so ill, Blankenship said.
“Our patients are litter patients,” Blankenship said. “They are not ambulatory. These people are pretty sick.”
Once EPWs “are stable and need no further health care,” they are transferred to “Camp Freddy,” an onshore holding facility in an undisclosed location, operated by the Army’s 800th Military Police Brigade, Blankenship said.
Comfort staffers have found that Iraqi EPWs not only are not hostile to the American crew, they actually express “almost daily gratitude” for their care, according to Lt. Ramzy Azar, one of the Comfort’s four translators.
He cites one man who was nearly paralyzed with fear as he was removed from the helicopter that brought him to the ship. “He was convinced he was going to be hurt,” Azar said.
Once he learned that he was on his way to medical treatment, not torture, “he broke down and cried,” Azar said.