Last week during the news coverage of President Bush's trip to Latin America, a reporter mentioned that a Navy medical ship, the USNS Comfort, would be dispatched to the region on a humanitarian mission. Its staff would perform 1,500 surgeries and treat 85,000 foreign national patients. What a welcomed contrast to other news of the week! According to a BBC poll,the USA ranks in the top three of the most negatively viewed countries in the world. (Israel and Iran topped the list and North Korea took fourth place).
This ship seemed to represent a floating oasis of international good will within a desert of negative USA images of late. I was glad to hear of our willingness to make this positive contribution to our neighbors to the South of us. The TV spot did not provide a visual so I looked it up on the internet and found a picture of the USNS Comfort along with its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, painted white from bow to stern punctuated by red crosses. They were majestically beautiful and symbolized a powerful non-verbal message of life support.
These ships, originally built as oil tankers in 1976, were converted in 1987 to provide hospital and surgical services for our troops as well as humanitarian relief on near and distant shores. They do not carry weapons. I pondered why I was so familiar with aircraft carriers like the USS Enterprise and USS Kitty Hawk yet could only vaguely recall ever hearing about these ships. I suppose a floating hospital quietly going about serving those in need of medical care without restrictions due to national or political boundaries does not compete as an icon for American hearts and minds compared with a gargantuan fighting machine traversing the oceans.
Perhaps the Comfort's mission represents only a proverbial drop in the bucket or an effort that is too little too late to make a difference to disenchanted Latin Americans. There are also those who will wonder why we are serving foreigners when we are not even providing adequate medical care for our own troops. Regardless, those on the receiving end of these services will most likely be grateful.
For a fleeting moment while gazing at the ship's picture, I was reminded of the words on the plaque at the Statue of Liberty... words I've long treasured as symbolic of noble American ideals:
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Despite our current struggles, within this instant I found myself reflecting up on the good heartedness of so many Americans. As I envisioned the USNS Comfort sailing into ports to provide its services to those in need, a remnant of the song from the City of Angels movie wafted through my head and I could not keep myself from singing aloud: "In the arms of an angel, may you find some comfort here."