Awake at 0600 to the call over the 1MC (main intercom) to reveille, reveille. I must not have slept well, because my roommate Mike asks me why I look hung over, but he was the one who was out on the Pier drinking Coronas last night, not me. We head up to chow, and just after sitting down we see two Corpsman and the on-call physician literally run out of the chow hall and know something is wrong. As there have been several medical rescue squad calls over the past few days for minor injuries, we expect this is nothing more, but the sense of urgency worries us. It was not until quarters in sick-bay at 0800 where we would learn of the tragic loss the crew had suffered.
I cannot write about the details, but we all are shaken by the suddenness of events and prayers and tears are ever present. The mission must continue and we proceed on with our powerpoint briefings and humanitarian aid to the Panamanians. It is a quick reminder of how fragile life is and how some are lost despite us as health care providers doing everything in our capacity to prevent it. God has something better in store, and I pray that this is the case in this situation.
2 JUN (cont.)
It has been a very emotional past day and a half. I am writing this in memory of Navy Chief Pamela Branum who passed the evening of June 1, 2009 of natural causes while asleep in her bed aboard USNS COMFORT. I had been emailing a lot with Chief over the past few weeks getting ready for the mission and spent quite a bit of time with her the past two days and witnessed her true care and devotion to the Navy mission and her shipmates. Two days earlier she was the one who picked us up at the airport in Panama and took us to the ship. While there we witnessed a changing of the guard, the goodbye to the Reservists who had served the past few weeks and a grand welcome for us newcomers. There was a moment of cheers and Chief Branum was front and center. I remember thinking that this was such a special moment and so high energy, that I whipped out my camera and set it to movie mode and recorded the moment. Today while I look back at that clip it truly captures Chief Branum’s energy and how the sailors and troops felt about her. I am watching it as I write this and can’t hold the tears back. I hope that her family and the crew get to see this video as it captures the spirit of this special person.
Hundreds of us gathered in uniform on the Pier to see Chief off as she was taken by helicopter draped with American flag back to her family. She was treated with high honor and dignity. As we saluted and TAPS was played, you could hear nothing but the chop of the helicopter blades, the gentle breeze, and the heartfelt thoughts of a hero gone too soon at 41.
This morning at 5am the USNS COMFORT pulled out of port in Colon and made way for the Panama Canal. I must not have heard the humming of the motors starting up, or the Reveille call, and evidently didn’t hear my alarm clock either as I rolled over to wake up and looked at my watch which read 8:33am. Dang nab it. Overslept right through breakfast. And right through muster (morning meeting at 7:30). For all they know I could have been man overboard. Everyone on the crew was so pent up with emotion last night we had gone out on the pier and had some suds of beer. It was a lot of fun and our last chance to do so for the next month and a half. So that may have had something to do with my deep slumber.
I threw on my uniform and hurdled up the ladder to the Medical Dept. to let them know I was present and ok. No problem they said. “We’ll have to have your roommate Murse (male nurse) make sure you’re up on time from now on.” Roger that Sir. But he is Canadian.
There were two very important events today. One is the transit of the Panama Canal- effectively going from the Atlantic Ocean (which is higher) to the Pacific Ocean (which is lower). The other is a special Memorial Service for Chief Branum which could not have been more beautiful and well done by Chaplain Overek. We gathered on the flight deck, the ship moving at a speed of about 5 knots and the green landscape of Panama passing by in the background. Several members of the crew who knew Chief very well spoke, and we heard some very moving verses from the Bible. We also sang two very moving hyms- “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” and “Amazing Grace” in memory of Chief. The Chaplain related a story of how Chief Branum came to him a few days ago after experiencing a dream. “She told me how she was wading through a river of water and on the bottom she spotted shining Silver coins all around her. She bent down and picked up some coins filling her pockets and she felt rich in life and wealth. She then related how she next came upon a village where she encountered some people that for some reason felt that she had done something wrong, but how she knew in her heart that she was good, she was one with the Lord.” As the sun beat down on the ship, Chaps finished this story and it was hard to tell from looking around if those were beads of sweat or tears on people’s face. Chief Branum was in heaven, and as we started the final hymn- Eternal Father Strong to Save, three birds descended upon the flight deck and chirped away in song, as if a sign from above. The words of the hymn could not be more fitting:
Eternal Father strong to save
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who biddst the mighty ocean deep, its own appointed limits keep,
O hear us when we cry to thee for those peril in the sea.
And when at length her course is run,
Her work for home and country done,
Of all the souls that in her sailed let not one life in thee have failed
But hear from heaven our sailors cry and grant eternal life on high!