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Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Johnson, a Navy hospital corpsman, moves a pallet of IV tubes aboard the USNS Comfort on Tuesday at Naval Station Rota, Spain. The hospital ship is returning to its homeport of Baltimore, Md., after spending 56 days in the Arabian Gulf providing combat medical support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The ship stopped in Rota, Spain, for a port call this week.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Johnson, a Navy hospital corpsman, moves a pallet of IV tubes aboard the USNS Comfort on Tuesday at Naval Station Rota, Spain. The hospital ship is returning to its homeport of Baltimore, Md., after spending 56 days in the Arabian Gulf providing combat medical support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The ship stopped in Rota, Spain, for a port call this week. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)
Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Johnson, a Navy hospital corpsman, moves a pallet of IV tubes aboard the USNS Comfort on Tuesday at Naval Station Rota, Spain. The hospital ship is returning to its homeport of Baltimore, Md., after spending 56 days in the Arabian Gulf providing combat medical support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The ship stopped in Rota, Spain, for a port call this week.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Johnson, a Navy hospital corpsman, moves a pallet of IV tubes aboard the USNS Comfort on Tuesday at Naval Station Rota, Spain. The hospital ship is returning to its homeport of Baltimore, Md., after spending 56 days in the Arabian Gulf providing combat medical support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The ship stopped in Rota, Spain, for a port call this week. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)
Navy Cmdr. Brian Lewis, division officer for the USNS Comfort's casualty receiving department, stands in front of the ship's CT scanner. Lewis said the scanner was critical for doctors and nurses treating casualties from the war in Iraq, and operated almost around the clock at the height of the conflict.
Navy Cmdr. Brian Lewis, division officer for the USNS Comfort's casualty receiving department, stands in front of the ship's CT scanner. Lewis said the scanner was critical for doctors and nurses treating casualties from the war in Iraq, and operated almost around the clock at the height of the conflict. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Two days into the war in Iraq, sailors aboard the USNS Comfort began seeing the type of gruesome injuries that make weak-stomached people faint.

The patients — both U.S. and Iraqi soldiers — arrived on the hospital ship by helicopter. Some had nasty gunshot wounds that shattered limbs. Others had burns covering half their body, or shrapnel lodged in spots that are unprintable.

Navy nurses such as Lt. j.g. Colleen Mahon had never seen anything like it in her career. Sometimes the blood and gore got to her.

“After the first couple of patients, the first week was hard,” she said.

“After our shift, I went back to my rack and, you know, thought a lot about what we did. But then you get up and do it over again, and it just becomes your job.”

With the war over, Mahon and the rest of the ship’s crew and staff are going home. Earlier this month, nearly 500 military personnel left the ship and arrived back in the States. About 430 doctors, nurses and corpsmen remain.

The 894-foot Comfort — one of two U.S. Navy hospital ships in the fleet — stopped in Rota on Tuesday before making its return journey across the Atlantic Ocean to its homeport of Baltimore.

While life aboard the ship was hectic at times, Petty Officer 3rd Class Amy Lee is glad she was there.

“I know we were all wishing we were back home when it first started,” said Lee, a hospital corpsman. “But after that, as things got going and we finally got patients, then it was a learning experience completely. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

The U.S. Navy hospital ship spent 56 days in the Arabian Gulf treating 300 outpatients and 360 inpatients — most with combat-related injuries in Iraq. The casualties included U.S. troops, Iraqi civilians and Iraqi prisoners of war. The first two patients arrived March 22.

While some people initially felt uneasy about treating Iraqi soldiers, Cmdr. Brian Lewis said they treated patients regardless of which side they fought.

“It’s tough and there were a lot of discussions about whether people would be able to do that before we got into actual combat operations,” said Lewis, the top nurse on the ship’s 50-bed Casualty Receiving ward. “The fact of the matter is our folks are very, very professional medical health care providers.”

Among the most grisly patients staff members dealt with were burn patients.

“They were just so disfigured, it was something you would see in a movie, a horrifying movie,” Lee said.

To deal with the daily trauma in the intensive care unit, a team of psychologists and psychiatrists visited the nurses and corpsmen almost daily to see how they were coping. Although 35 percent of the sailors had less than one year of experience in medicine, Lewis said the young staff performed incredibly well.

“We didn’t know exactly what to expect,” he said. “But it never ceases to amaze me how really inspired and inspiring our young troops are.”

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