Op-Ed

The Comfort brings a message of solidarity

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On a sunny day in September, two medical teams examined patients in a hospital in Haiti. What was significant about this encounter was the nationality of the medical professionals. In a historic moment, U.S. and Cuban doctors worked side-by-side, providing free care to ease the suffering of Haiti’s poor. This remarkable event was made possible by the presence of the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort, anchored off the Haitian coast as part of the Continuing Promise 2015 mission, and by our new policy toward Cuba, which has created new opportunities for U.S. engagement in the region.

Several days earlier, Cuban diplomats and medical officials toured the Comfort’s medical facilities and met with their U.S. counterparts. The entire experience was extremely positive for both sides, highlighting the strategic importance of U.S. engagement and the role of the Comfort in bringing people together for the common good.

The work done aboard the Comfort clearly heals more than bodies. It bridges gaps, builds ties, and makes history. As the U.S. military seeks to remain globally engaged in the face of declining resources, missions like Continuing Promise underscore the enduring value of humanitarian engagement, public-private partnerships, and forward presence in the Western Hemisphere. It is without a doubt one of the U.S. military’s most impactful missions.

Recently, the crew of the Comfort returned home after a six-month deployment to 11 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Working with almost 400 nongovernmental organization (NGO) volunteers, medical and support staff from across the U.S. military and the region treated 122,268 patients and conducted 1,255 surgeries, with an additional 279 life-changing operations as part of Operation Smile. Partnerships with NGOs and the private sector resulted in $3.78 million in donations to partner nations, including gifts-in-kind like medicine, wheelchairs, clothing and high-nutrition meals. While ashore, the crew conducted 94 engineering projects, renovating public buildings, schools and clinics in under-serviced, remote areas, and trained 894 partner-nation civilian and military personnel, ensuring the mission’s impact will endure long after the ship departs. Additionally, Comfort personnel directly supported State Department and USAID’s developmental and social projects by improving water sanitation and providing healthcare to children affected by HIV/AIDS.

The Comfort’s deployment also highlighted deepening U.S. ties with the region. In terms of geographic proximity, trade, culture, demographics and the environment, no other part of the world has greater impact on daily life in our country than Latin America and the Caribbean. As the Comfort transited through Central America, South America and the Caribbean, it visited a region that is increasingly prosperous, peaceful and home to millions of citizens who share our commitment to advancing democratic values and working together to ensure stability and security throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The Comfort is one of the greatest symbols of U.S. friendship with our neighbors. In an era when we must make each limited defense dollar count, missions like Continuing Promise are irreplaceable. They display the very best of who we are as a nation. As one Latin American leader put it, “Your visit gives us a sense of hope that we are not alone.”

Perhaps this message of solidarity is the mission’s most enduring impact. It sends a simple and powerful signal to our friends in Latin America and the Caribbean —one of fellowship, partnership and hope for the future.

Rebecca B. Chavez is deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs. John Kelly is commander of U.S. Southern Command.

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