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Operation Homecoming: USNS Comfort {format} {format} 3:19 Barrett Golding

Life on a Navy hospital ship.

Broadcast: Dec 25 2006 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Operation Homecoming Subjects: International, Health, War

A Navy Doctor's Tour on a Ship Called Comfort

December 25, 2006 from Day to Day

Mr. EDWARD JEWELL (Navy Doctor; Author "Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their FamiliesĒ): My name is Edward Jewell. Iím a doctor. Iím a radiologist. I was in the United States Navy as a medical officer for 23 years.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Edward Jewell spent nearly his entire career in the Navy without seeing combat. Then, the Iraq war started. Commander Jewell was deployed to the Persian Gulf on the Navyís hospital ship, the USS Comfort. Almost immediately, the casualties began pouring in. Jewell kept a journal the entire time.

Here he is reading some selections.

Dr. JEWELL: (Reading) March 29th, we got creamed with fresh casualties last night. 30 new patients, both sides, all needing immediate and significant intervention. The injuries are horrifying - ruptured eyeballs, children missing limbs, large burns, paraplegics from spine injuries.

Our patients are mostly Iraqi. Along with their combat wounds, they are dirty, undernourished and dehydrated. One rumor says we will treat all the Iraqi EPWs - Enemy Prisoners of War, that is - for the duration of the war, and these are the only patients we will see. As medical people, we are trained to care for the sick. It is difficult to stay mindful that these patients are the enemy and could fight back against us.

April 11th, the number of patients coming aboard Comfort now is simply out of control. Like the characters on "M*A*S*H,Ē we have grown to hate the rumble of helos on the flight deck, since it usually means another load of Iraqi patients. New in the last 24 hours, is a big influx of sick and injured children. We have only one doctor with residency training in pediatrics. They are sending everyone here. We simply donít know who they are and no one seems to have a handle on where the patients are coming from, when they are arriving, or who is sending them.

There is no long-term plan for these patients. And the ones who survive will need long-term care. Where will they go? Who will care for them after we leave? We have become deeply involved in a humanitarian crisis we will not be able to extricate ourselves from.

The Navy has two hospital ships, the Comfort and the Mercy. They are converted to super tankers bought by the Navy in the early 1980s and refitted to be hospitals Ė floating hospitals. Theoretically, they can be ramped up to be a 1,000-bed hospital. Once we started seeing casualties, it was work every single day without break. No days off.

So, why did I write? I did this because I thought that what we did on the Comfort was really remarkable. We went out there and took care of the enemy. And I assumed that everybody in the world new what the Comfort was doing. I came home and I found out that the general public didnít know. And then I realized even people in the Navy actually werenít told what we were doing.

And it really bothered me because it seems like in the big picture of fighting terrorism and what we did should have been promoted really well. I mean, here we are taking care of sick and wounded enemy combatants. That was really my motivation for writing this. I wanted people to know that we did that.

BRAND: Commander Jewell retired from the Navy after returning from the Iraq war. Heís now a doctor in Fort Mead, Maryland. Our series "Operation HomecomingĒ is produced by Barret Golding of HearingVoices.com. Itís from a National Endowment for the Arts book, "Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front.Ē And for more about that book, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.