Providing Aid and Care Around the World
The floating hospital
It stands taller than a 10-story building, its towering white hull casting a shadow wherever it sails. Beneath the skin, the 894-foot vessel is virtually indistinguishable from a modern medical facility with 1,000 hospital beds and 12 operating rooms.
While the U.S. Navy is known for its massive fleet of gray-hulled warships, it also prides itself in a lesser known and more unique role: operating two massive hospital ships, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20).
Mercy, which is based out of San Diego, started her life in 1974 as the SS Worth - an oiler. The Navy purchased the ship in 1984, and completely gutted her, giving her new life as a dedicated hospital ship.
Staffed by a team of civilian mariners from the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command (MSC) as well as U.S. Navy Sailors, the ship is constantly manned and ready to respond within 5 days of any disaster or mission requirement.
Outfitted like a modern hospital, Mercy boasts radiological services, two laboratories, a pharmacy, physical therapy facilities, an intensive care unit, dental services, a morgue, laundry, burn treatment unit, blood bank and two oxygen-producing plants.
"If this was a land-based hospital, it would be the fourth-largest in the country," said Baron Garvey, a cargo mate with the MSC crew. "It has four more trauma beds than L.A. County hospital does."
Historically, navies around the world have operated hospital ships for the purpose of supporting their troops on the ground in times of war. While the United States built these ships with a similar purpose, they also have a unique secondary mission: providing free aid and care for poor or disaster-stricken countries around the world.
"It's incredibly rewarding, and very humbling," said Capt. Peter Roberts, Mercy's commanding officer. "We learn a great deal with every stop we go to."
Based on the West Coast, Mercy typically responds to natural disasters in the Pacific, including Operation Unified Assistance in Southeast Asia in 2004, as well as the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
In addition to these missions, Mercy takes part in Pacific Partnership, an annual deployment started in 2004, which involves multiple months of travelling to Pacific nations and providing free medical and dental aid. Since it began, Mercy has provided aid for more than 400,000 patients during Pacific Partnership deployments.
"It's not just a paycheck - you actually get to change people's lives," said Garvey. "It's amazing."
While the mission of the U.S. Navy is primarily focused on warfighting, hospital ships provide a unique and important mission, proving the U.S. military can excel at providing humanitarian aid abroad, and living up to the moniker of being a "global force for good."
"I love the Mercy," said Lt. Cmdr. Pete Bradford, in charge of the main operating room. "I love what it does for our Navy, and I'm proud to be a part of the team."