Peacekeeping: Private Hospital Ships


June 8, 2007: One U.S. admiral suggested, while the navy was scrounging for funds to sends one of its hospital ships on another non-military mission, that the two ships be transferred to the State Department, because all these two vessels seem to do anymore is peacekeeping and mercy missions.

It was in 2006, after one of those ships spent six months in Indonesia, treating 61,000 patients, that many noted what a powerful effect that had on attitudes towards the United States. Most of the Indonesians received some medicine, or some dental work. Only about two percent involved some surgery. As a result of all this, favorable attitudes towards the U.S. by Indonesians doubled (to 30 percent, so more work is needed.) The Indonesians were getting American quality medicine, which explains the average cost for treating each patient; $280.

The U.S. Navy has two hospital ships; Mercy and Comfort. They were built as tankers in the 1970s, and converted to hospital ships in the 1980s. They displace 70,000 tons and are 894 feet long. Each ship has 12 operating rooms, fifty emergency room beds, a thousand patient beds and a crew of 61 civilians and 225 sailors, plus 956 medical personnel. Fully air conditioned, and stocked with medical supplies and the latest medical equipment, they bring the highest level of medical care to parts of the world that have rarely seen any modern medicine at all.

The navy's pitch is that one six month deployment by one of these ships has an enormous impact on the health of the people treated, and on their attitude towards the United States. The United States armed forces actually has little use for hospital ships at the moment. Casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan are already much lower than expected, and army medical units actually spend a lot of their time treating Iraqis. American troops have long noted that providing medical care to civilians in a war zone is a good way to develop good will with the locals. U.S. Army Special Forces medical personnel are specifically trained to render such aid.

Hospital ships were essential during the World War II campaigns in the Pacific, and have been less useful of late because casualties have declined so sharply in the last two decades, and front line medical care has become much more effective. It's easier to fly the seriously wounded to established hospitals.

The use of hospital ships in disaster areas has long been noted, and this has led to non-governmental hospital ships, in the form of the Mercy Ships organization, in 1978. There are currently two Mercy Ships hospital ships, which are about half the size of the U.S. Navy hospital ships.




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