The USNS Comfort was decidedly irrelevant in New York.

April 30, 2020 12:18 am

NEW YORK HARBOR (April 1, 2020) Sailors participate in a morning colors ceremony, April 1, 2020, aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) while the ship is moored in New York City in support of the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman/Released)

By Thomas King

With the recent profound irrelevance of the USNS Comfort’s mission to New York City made abundantly clear, it is time to revive the effort the Navy made in 2018 to retire one of its two hospital ships.

Citing the cost of maintaining them, the Navy asked to retire one of the two ships but was rebuffed by Congress. This is the problem with cost savings in the military. Retiring a ship with 1,200 crew members holding down good paying, middle class jobs that stimulate the local economy is incredibly disruptive, even to large cities.

Congresspeople don’t like that. This is the uncomfortable reality Americans seldom think about. Our military is a jobs program, the ultimate pork barrel project with tentacles weaving America into a network of interdependent defense contractors and the communities that rely on them.

The USNS Comfort arrived in New York City on March 30, accepting 20 patients on the first day, and treated a total of 178 patients as of April 21 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the ship would leave. That is about eight patients a day, or by my last check, what my local clinic knocks out in about 90 minutes.

There is a legitimate argument to be made that this ship would have been needed had NYC experienced a worst-case scenario. But it is entirely unclear if the Comfort was prepared to operate even in the less catastrophic scenario the ship found itself in.

The hospital ship departed after hospital administrators and doctors’ referred to the Comfort’s presence in NYC as “a joke” and “pretty ridiculous.” There were 49 medical conditions that the Comfort refused to accept, and the Navy imposed bureaucratic hurdles before admitting a patient, including that the patient had to be first admitted at a hospital, receive a COVID-19 test, have the test come back negative and then obtain transportation to the Comfort via ambulance.

Amid stories of patients dying in hospital hallways, never having been seen by doctors, nurses reusing the same protective gear again and again and the city almost running out of body bags, it seems like the Navy and the Military Sealift Command – the hybrid agency tasked with operating the hospital ships – were completely unserious about the actual hospital mission of these ships. This was done for show, in other words.

We use ships like the Comfort and Mercy as a tool to build “good will” around the world. They are ships who serve both a real purpose, in saving lives, and as an optics tool to show the world that we value human well-being. It’s just that it seems the Navy only brought part of the hospital while they brought the whole PR apparatus: the photo shoots, the presidential send-off, the “awe inspiring” NYC harbor transit.

Has the military has been waging PR wars for so long that they have forgotten how to actually respond in a crisis? Recall the swoon when it was announced that the Comfort and Mercy would be deployed to NYC and Los Angeles. Mayor de Blasio talked about “how inspiring [it was] as the USNS Comfort entered New York harbor… this ship arriving is not just an example of help arriving in physical form … it’s also about hope and boosting the morale of New Yorkers.”

One would hope ailing New Yorkers would have had more to boost their morale than empty promises, but apparently, that’s what they got. This ship achieved almost nothing useful in the 22 days in NYC before it left. Furthermore, the Pentagon warned on March 18, 10 days before the ship departed Norfolk for NYC, that the ship wouldn’t be ready for weeks due to maintenance issues.  This is not the first time the Comfort over-promised and under-delivered. When it was sent to Puerto Rico in 2017 to aid burdened hospitals after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, it barely treated six patients a day.

It’s time that the American people take notice of the mismanagement in their military.

Thomas King served as an officer in the U.S. Navy from 2012-2017, exclusively aboard ships, where he deployed twice to the Middle East. He resigned as a lieutenant and moved to Richmond to obtain his MBA from VCU. He now works for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development in building codes and regulations.

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