Sunday, July 5, 2009

Nightlife on USNS COMFORT / July 4 with the Surgeon General

What does the crew do at night aboard the USNS COMFORT you may wonder? Well last night may illustrate a few of the options. There are only so many places to go and things to do onboard a ship. After dinner, I ventured towards the operating room. Inside I saw a group of folks watching the movie “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (relatively funny Adam Sandler movie). Two of my friends, LCDR Vic Diaz (my Nurse Anesthetist roommate) and Lieutenant Junior Grade Marcela Zelaya were part of the group. Those two could be brother and sister.

Zelaya, whose family is from El Salvador, is extremely smart, speaking six languages, getting her PhD in astrophysics, and a former Olympic Trials qualifier in swimming. If they made a female version of the Zohan who was from Central America it would be Marcela. She’s Wonder Woman. After a while I grew tired of the movie and moved along to see what else I could find going on aboard the ship.

I ventured back to the galley to get some more water because I was already dehydrated (hot ship). People are stil getting soft serve ice cream, but I decide against having another. In line is LT Matt Gill, public affairs officer extraordinaire for the mission. I’ve been corresponding with Matt for months now, working on several strategic communication initiatives to get the word out about Continuing Promise 2009. He is a levelheaded Naval Officer with Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Navy Diving background.

Gill is steady, does not overreact, stays on point and gets the message across- just what you need in a Public Affairs Officer. You wouldn’t know he has such a dry sense of humor until you got to know him better. He has a great family back home in Norfolk and soon they will be headed to their new port station in Naples, Italy. I snap a photo of him and move along.

I hear my name (or something close to it) called from across the room. It is Warrant Officer Tuparan- a gregarious Navy Officer of Filipino decent who works in Patient Administration. “How you doing Alec?Need anything?” He’s the guy who knows how to get something if you need it. Kind of like “Red” in the Shawshank Redemption.

So when the paperwork needed to be straightened out, Warrant was the guy who knew someone who knew someone. “Nah, I’m good Warrant. Thanks, though!” I filled up another glass of Gatorade and picked up some more saltine crackers (that’s all they have to eat on the mess decks after dinner is over). I like the crackers. Warrant Tuperon always has jokes, and smile on his face. I hope his kids will go into Navy Medicine as well.

There is someone singing/rapping “In Da Club” by 50 Cent from across the room (fairly well I must say). The ship is having their COMFORT IDOL finals tonight – Karaoke style. I just watch for a bit, and see that the guys and gals are having fun. The “Fun Boss,” Jeremy (recent Penn State grad, not in the military) has things under control and is doing his job. The Fun Boss’s sole job that he is highered for on the deployment is to come up with events each night and at liberty ports for entertainment.

He hosts Bingo nights, Video game competitions, Athletic bouts, Karaoke, Movie Screenings, etc., etc. I went up to him and asked if he had a business card. I just want to see if his card reads “Fun Boss”. One of my good friends worked for the Sheraton in Hawaii and his job was the “Director of Fun” for the hotel and that’s what his business card said. No kidding

I ventured downstairs to the Officers Lounge and found CDR Bill Graf. Dr. Graf is an interventional radiologist and a fellow Navy Deep Sea Diver. He is a steadfast athlete, and we always seem to find ourselves PTing (physical training) next to each other.

I just found out a few days ago that Graf and I both grew up in Lancaster. A cool thing about the Navy is that you can be halfway around the world, and meet someone that grew up down the street from you. Two days ago while running with Graf on the treadmills I noticed the yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet on his wrist. “You lose someone to cancer, Sir?” I asked him. He told me the story of how his wife had lost someone and was very active with fundraising for cancer research and supporting the LIVESTRONG movement created by cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. I told Graf the story of my uncle who had rapidly and painfully lost his life to pancreatic cancer and the work I do with Tonight Graf handed me a cap and a yellow LIVESTONG band. I put is on and we got a photo. “PA Pride” (Pennyslvania Pride) we both said and pounded fists to our chests.

Time to head back to the other end of the ship and see if anything is happening back there. I stop quickly to check the computer and see if the outside communication is working. As usual the answer is no. Only email we are receiving is from intranet (within the ship). The one message I did receive internally from the supply office informs me that I have a letter and package waiting at the post office. Wow! Things were looking up. I go up there and ask the postal clerk (it’s after hours but they are still up watching movies) what he’s got. He hands me a bag and a letter.

In the bag is a white T-shirt with El Salvador proudly painted on the front with adjectives and things that make the country special. It was a gift from one of the El Salvadorian patients I had seen and the note expressed her thanks to all on this mission. Even though the T-shirt was three sizes too small, and had colorful writing that would not last long in these washers, it was the best token of graciousness that I could have received and it made my night. Thumbs up to you!

In a jovial mood, and feeling even more joyful because it was the eve before Independence Day, I decided to return to my favorite chair in my room and put in the HBO TV series John Adams. Very fitting to watch the signing of the Declaration of Independence that occurred 233 years ago on a DVD video player on my Mac on my lap in the underbelly of a floating converted Oil Tanker off the coast of Nicaragua. If you have not seen this Series based off of David McCullough’s book chronicling the life of our 2nd President John Adams, I highly recommend it. Paul Giametti does a fantastic job playing Adams and clearly shows the courage and fortitude our founding fathers displayed time and time again so that we could live with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I have not felt very homesick up until this point, but everyone wants to be on American soil for July 4th. So any of you reading this, please give a salute, a howdy! and a thank you to any military personnel you know serving around the world today. With these thoughts in mind, I dozed off to sleep in the chair, woke up at 1am, and my first thought was Happy 4th of July! Next thought was “Hey Baldwin, get in your rack for Pete’s sake! You fell asleep in this chair for the past three hours!”

Happy Independence Day! I am still shipboard since I’ll be working the back half of our Nicaragua stay ashore (my friend Karen Jacobson and others have been out there the past few days). Today is another good opportunity to work out a lot and read medical textbooks. This morning was the ritual Dave Bacon spin class, followed by a reading session on Bioterrorism agents. When I was falling asleep from the material, I decided it was time to work out once again. Sick of running and falling off the treadmill, I asked a recent Newbie, LCDR Lynn Sterni if she wanted to run the ramps of the ship with me. She nodded yes in a manner that said “yes, get me out of here!”

The ramps are switchbacks used for loading and unloading large cargo, and also the entry point for mass casualty receiving. The walls of the ramps are lined with stretchers and the floor painted red to conceal the blood. Pray we do not have to use them. From bottom to top at a gentle incline is .16 miles. So going up and down three times completes a mile. Sterni is a pediatric anesthesiologist in the Navy. She has red hair, practices in St. Louis, is super nice, and I always see her working out. I come to find out while running the ramps that she is an outstanding runner and triathlete. I was winded trying to keep up with her. Turns out that she was at the TAPS Good Grief Camp in D.C. that my foundation Got Your Back Network ( helped out with in May for families of the fallen. Very nice thing for her to do. She is quality people. After 9 times up and down on those ramps (3 miles) in the stifling heat with calisthenics in between, we were drenched with sweat and spent. Two solid workouts on the 4th and we were ready for the Ice Cream Social that evening.

July 4 was extra special this year on USNS COMFORT. The Acting U.S. Surgeon General, Admiral Galson, came aboard with his staff (my friends Julie and Tomas) to visit the ship and to celebrate the anniversary of the U.S. Public Health Service.

We have just shy of 100 Public Health Service Officers onboard from all throughout the country. They serve in numerous roles from Environmental Health Officers, to Epidemiologists, Physicians, and Veterinarians. Over the past few months while in Washington, D.C. it is been an honor to help Admiral Galson with his “Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future” initiative combating childhood overweight and obesity throughout the United States. For more info see: and pledge your support today.

For the Surgeon General’s visit we had a very nice dinner in the Wardroom with distinguished staff. They brought out the best china and silverware for the occasion and everyone in attendance had a personalized nametag at their table setting, as well as a colorful Independence Day menu.

Given the choice of ribs or chicken, I went for the poultry. I sat next to a very nice Veterinarian LCDR who I found out attended Cornell University for Veterinary School (the same undergrad school that my parents and sister attended), and it was fun to talk about the beauty of Ithaca, NY and Cayuga Lake. I have been there many times. Across the table from me was CAPT Beadle who has led the Medical Operations and planning for this mission from the start. She is the brains and the powerhouse behind the medical planning and execution. I told her good job- “Bravo Zulu ma’am!” Bravo Zulu (BZ for short) means good job in Navy lingo. “We’re not quite there yet! Almost,” she said. With all the moving parts that this mission has, the amount of time she has put in is remarkable. I hope CAPT Beadle feels proud and people give her a pat on the back for the great job she has done. Dinner was excellent (best food I’ve had on board yet) and I thanked the Petty Officers who served us and asked them where they were from and what their goals were. Solid kids. The Surgeon General made some remarks in addition to the Commodore (Captain Negus), Captain Ware (Medical Commanding Officer), and Captain Finger (Ship’s Master). They call this trio of Captains the “Three Amigos.”

After dinner we had the usual 7pm Confirmation Brief, and the packed mess decks as always felt like a sauna. The Three Amigos name a “Person of the Day” every evening and tonight it was a truly special person- the lead vocalist for the Air Force Band. As if on cue she took the microphone and started singing right in front of the American Flag- “God Bless America.” The entire crew came together singing in unison to finish out the hymn and you could feel the pride. The only thing missing was fireworks. But we did have Ice cream! Tonight it was the real stuff- fresh with several flavors from the scoop- no soft serve. As they turned on the movie Flags of our Fathers, enjoying the dessert, smiles abounded and we (at least for a little while) forgot we were off the coast of Nicaragua. In our minds and in our hearts we were home, proud to be Americans, celebrating the day that 233 years ago fifty six patriots pledged their lives so that we could live in freedom. God Bless America.


  1. GOD Bless America indeed! Thank you for painting a picture of a night in the life of the Comfort dwellers. What you described is just like what we usually do late into the night on a cruise ship exploring its workings .....and just like you, a snack at the end. If Warrant Officer T is with you till the end of the journey, get use to being called Alec, we Filipinos are like that, we stick you with a name and it would stay that way.
    Interesting movie I watched after the fireworks, "1776," about the events leading to the writing and signing of the United States Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1776. It was a Broadway play in 1969 and movie was made in 1972.
    Like the Patriots in 1776, who wrote...."We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"...... you and those on board the Comfort and all who serve and defend, are our Patriots of 2009, THANK YOU for your service!!

  2. Thank you for your service and for your detailed description of life on the USNS Comfort. My little sister is onboard and I feel like I know a bit better what she's experiencing through your writing. Keep up the good work - we're proud of you all!

  3. Thanks again for sharing with us all in such a clear way. God Bless you and everyone on the USNS.

    I would still like to know how to send you mail.

    Linda C

  4. Dear Andy,

    My name is Jonathan, I'm 18 years old and just graduated from Monta Vista High School, and I'm going to UC San Diego as a Human Biology major next fall.

    Last summer, I was a high school intern at UCSF and did breast, pancreatic, and colorectal cancer research. From there, I decided that I wanted to become a pediatric surgeon one day.

    Right now, though, I'm training to do the Triathlon at Pacific Grove on September 12 with Team in Training. My recommitment date is July 8 at 10am Pacific time, and I still need $1000 before I can recommit (I don't have a credit card or checking account.)

    I'm writing to you in hopes that you would be able to sponsor me. I know you're already involved in numerous charities and this is just another small thing to you, but doing a charity race is something I've dreamed of doing for a long time. I've already fundraised from everyone I know, and if I can't get the last $1000 together by recommitment (this Wednesday), I would have to drop out of Team in Training.

    My fundraising page is
    and my email is

    I really hope to hear back from you!