Thursday, July 2, 2009

En Route to Nicaragua- A Crowded Ship

“MAIL CALL!” Now that is something you don’t hear everyday, unlike the numerous routine announcements over the 1MC aforementioned (by the way I am several steps closer to finding out the person whose voice belongs to TAPS, TAPS, LIGHTS OUT- he works in ADMIN and his name starts with a D). “ MAIL CALL!” Again I heard it. This is the first day we have received mail since I have been onboard.

And to anyone in the Navy it is a beautiful thing to hear, because it means that there is a chance that someone out there may actually care about you while you are gone on this hunky piece of metal floating in the ocean. When I was a Midshipman at 20 years old in the middle of the Persian Gulf on the USS CHOSIN (CG65), I was the one made to fish the mail buoy out of the ocean after they dropped it from the sky since I was the youngest Mid. I thought I was going to go overboard into that warm sea snake infested water. But, I am still here. This time the mail came by helicopter and I went upstairs to the post office to see if there happened to be anything good. People pulled out goodies left and right- some were stale crackers, playing cards, smokes, beef jerky, some magazines from a few weeks ago (PEOPLE, US Weekly) when they were initially sent (pre-MJ death). My mustached RENO 911 friend got a huge box of Chiclets and said, “Hey Baldwin, here you go!” and threw some my way. Yes, my favorite flavor! Getting anything is good. Many have been on this ship for three months now, and it was great to see their smiles while opening their mail. It makes such a difference. During a deployment when you are upended from your family and regular world, working your tail off day in and day out, any notion of support is magnified, as is the opposite.

Last night at the 7pm confirmation brief there was a very special promotion ceremony of the lead Dental Officer, CDR Hartzell, to CAPTAIN in the U.S. Navy. CAPT Hartzell and I have done numerous recruiting engagements together for Navy Medicine, and I was happy to see him put on the rank “full bird.”

The insignia for Captain in the Navy and for a Colonel in the other services is an eagle with wings outstretched. He gave an inspirational speech to the packed house. It made me look forward to getting promoted to Lieutenant Commander a month from now in Seattle.

One of the best parts about getting promoted is the “wetting down” ceremony. This is a longstanding military tradition where the person promoted throws a celebration with his/her closest mates utilizing the extra money he will earn in the first month in higher pay grade. CAPT Hartzell is going to have his wetting down when the crew gets to the liberty port in Panama City the middle of this month. It’s ballyhoo that I have to miss it. I am sure they will have a fun time. My D.C. officemate LT Marcy Morlock has gladly volunteered to “spend” my money for wetting down in D.C. So to all my D.C. friends, standby for early August.

It is July 2, and today we pulled anchor and began the short transit to the final country of the mission- Nicaragua. We have experienced yet another influx onboard USNS COMFORT. This time the majority come from the UCSD pre-health professional society and also from the Army.

Couple that with the hundred plus folks returning from staying overnight ashore (Navy SEABEES and medical providers) and the Canadians returning from their Canada Day celebration in San Salvador (I wonder if MURSE shaved the stache?) and you have a crowded ship. Don’t get me wrong, this is no submarine where you grow used to being an inch apart at all times from another human being (it can be weird, trust me), but this is definitely a packed house. Peoples’ nerves are on edge. The urinals are overflowing (this morning I stepped into a bathroom full of who knows what), there is no more OJ, and my laundry has been mixed up with some guy (I presume) who wears size XXXL. You can also tell it is a crowded ship when they whip out the plastic spork like utensils and paper plates because (bless their hearts) they can’t keep up with the dirty dishes.

I’ve been back there in the scullery and it is hot. The other thing that becomes a problem is remembering whether you have met someone yet or not. My rule of thumb- if there is any question- I introduce myself (or reindroduce if it may be). That prevents the awkward silence and is just nice. Trouble is that THREE times today, I have gotten the response, “Yes sir, we met YESTERDAY.” Dangit! Just curious…

CAPT Hartzell and I decided to use this time with so many new folks aboard to give another “Opportunities in Navy Medicine” talk to anyone interested. Today we put on our Summer Whites, with CAPT Hartzell proudly sporting an additional bar (for CAPTAIN) on his shoulder boards. He spoke about the 18 or so years that he and his wife (also a Navy Dentist) have been in the Navy and the places they have been. He showed slides of his time as department head aboard the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.

They have had an extremely interesting career path. His wife actually was involved with tracking down Saddam Hussein (utilizing her language skills not dentistry) and she was awarded the Bronze Star (the first female Navy Dentist ever to receive it). They are a tough duo and proud of their service to humanity and their country. My time comes to speak. I feel back in my element up there speaking to the crowd of about 30. I name the talk “Adventures in Navy Medicine” because that is truly what it is- an Adventure of perennial opportunity. Best decision I have ever made. Up there in front of the group talking with them about the breadth of things you can do as a Navy doctor, telling stories about travel, service, and humanitarian aid missions.

And the best part, as both CAPT Hartzell and I mentioned, are the people. Lifelong friends. People like LCDR Todd Gleeson, Infectious Disease Specialist, who many years ago as a 2/C Midshipman at Duke University was my platoon commander. And now 14 years later, he is still a colleague and a friend. Here in Central America, Todd, LT Jacobson and I say BAF, Best Amigos Forever.


  1. Did you get mail? Where would your readers send it? I am so touched by your blog. Thank-you and all who serve.

  2. What is it about doctors being involved with Saddam? I remember your story of the doctor in Chicago....ummmmm???
    Sorry, we didn't send any letters this time, it seems you are so near because of the blogs unlike Palau. Next time, we know....should have anticipated that since I did have the experience of sending letters to my father who was a mariner.
    Happy 4th!! and as always....I had an opportunity to say THANKS! to a vet, to our MURSE Terry ,at work! and Thank you! to ALL on board the USNS COMFORT!

  3. Andy, really terrific that you are blogging about these news adventures of yours and shedding light on what it's like in the Navy day to day. Mark

  4. 1st Congratulations to you and your shipmates for work well done in the care and support to those of lesser means. 2nd Congratulations on your well deserved promotion to Lieutenant Commander! I’m sure all us followers wish they could be at your “wetting down” ceremony. I fund raise for our local Medical Brigade to Honduras.(Has Comfort been there?) They bring home stories and photos …Creating a daily BLOG - what a wonderful way to communicate the daily Humanitarian efforts to the team supporters(Want-a-be-there people)at home and community. Thank you, a Light Bulb just went on! (I’m not that familiar with blogging). Canadians on Board US Comfort…How does one make that happen? Please continue to share your encounters with us. God Bless, Stay Safe.

  5. Thanks for the amazing blog Andy. The work that you and your fellow service men and women, along with other volunteers, is incredible and goes largely unnoticed by the public. I am glad that you are able to find the time to share your stories.

    Speaking of stories - what did you think of "Man in Full"? I read that a few years ago. Love Tom Wolfe's work.

    Thanks again and have a ahappy 4th of July!

  6. Hi Andy! I work for Project HOPE back in the states at the headquarters near DC. Just wanted to say that the blog is great! Melanie Mullinax shared it with our department today and I've been glued to it all morning! On behalf of Project HOPE (as well as any navy brats like myself out there), thank you for doing such a wonderful job relaying the compassion of our country!

  7. Hi,I am following up on the characters on The Bachelor and came across this amazing blog.You have a good heart.May God grant you your heart desires just as you are meeting peoples needs.