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OutServe Magazine | October 16, 2013

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LGB Sailors Offer A Healing Hand

LGB Sailors Offer A Healing Hand
Joseph White
By Joseph D. White
The USNS Mercy returned home to San Diego from a humanitarian mission in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia Sept. 14, providing medical relief to countries in the region, sharing medical knowledge and access to advances in technology, and teaching the people there new medical procedures.

As part of the mission, and nearing the anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT), OutServe Magazine is highlighting a small group of LGB sailors on this humanitarian and civic assistance mission, known as Pacific Partnership. The crew has been deployed since May 3, making stops in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The mission treated more than 49,000 people, performed 887 surgeries, completed 104 community service projects, and donated 244 pallets of supplies to people in need.

The USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) is a hospital on a ship. The vessel has the capability of providing administrative, medical, surgical, vision and dental services to hundreds of people at a time with a potential of housing 1,200 staff and patients. A variety of different countries, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan and Portugal, and several other entities assisted U.S. Sailors in this mission, now in its seventh year. Pacific Partnership is focused on building enduring relationships by working through and with host nations, partner nations and non-government organizations to enhance the collective ability and capacity to respond to natural disasters.Among the members of this mission were 12 out, LGB sailors who bonded over listening to Lady Gaga: Petty Officers 3rd Class James A. Hunter, Dennis Parsons and Eloy Rodriguez; Petty Officers 2nd Class Philip Wade, Sergio Morales and Christofer Rodriguez; Petty Officer 1st Class Panjwani Rahim; Culinary Specialist Frederick Miranda; and Hospitalmen Pedro Pomales-Rodriguez, David Looney, and Hector Hernandez.“Every member of the team works in a different department,” said Petty Officer Hunter. “Each one of us had to prepare from lessons learned in the previous Pacific partnership missions. We ended up employing tactics and suggestions from previous missions to attain mission success.”This small LGB enclave aboard didn’t know what to expect going into the mission, which for some was their first deployment since the repeal of DADT. “Some of us expected to be walking into zombie land where no medical care was available,” Petty Officer Hunter said. “Others thought we were there just to provide medical supplies and then leave. I know that our expectations changed after our first mission port, Indonesia. We prepared for one thing and found that each country would have individual needs. After the second mission port in the Philippines we thought we knew what to expect for Vietnam. Oh boy, were we wrong. But near mission completion with Cambodia we had it down.”

The group had to adapt with each country. “Anything could change at any time,” he said. “For example, if there were riots we would have to change our route. Sometimes it was frustrating, but we were able to overcome and achieve our goal.”

Prior to deployment, Capt. Timothy Hinman, commander of the military treatment facility, which is responsible for the hospital and providing care aboard Mercy and on shore, said, “I am really looking forward to going beyond what we have done in the past as part of our exchanges. This year’s mission provides opportunities to integrate host nation providers into performing surgeries, both on the ship and ashore, as a true exchange of expertise and practice that will greatly increase medical capacity and build relationships.” On previous missions, U.S. and partner providers performed surgeries aboard Mercy.

Pacific Partnership conducted tailored civic assistance projects, aimed to build relationships and capacity. Sailors also conducted community service and subject matter expert exchanges to reinforce the importance of mutual support and learning about cultures.

For the LGBT sailors aboard, they noticed cultural differences with regard to other countries’ stances on LGBT matters. Many of the communities the Mercy visited were already on the road to passing laws and policies protecting the LGBT community. Others had already passed such laws.

“The countries here seem to have a keen sense of cohesion,” said Petty Officer Hunter. “Everyone seemed to accept you…The culture of the people there is family-oriented, and it opened our eyes to acceptance no matter what, as long as you didn’t dishonor the family, or country.”

However, the group felt a sense of relief serving with their fellow gay and lesbian sailors, even though most of them were still cautious about openly telling others about their sexuality. Most of their comrades welcomed them with open arms and smiles, but some others were not as kind.

“We have a duty to complete the mission regardless,” said Petty Officer Hunter. “Individually, maybe, each person has a different outlook with ways that they communicate with others. With the DADT repeal, it is easier. We will never forget about our experiences and the fun times that we have shared.”

The hospital crew aboard Mercy is assigned to Naval Medical Center San Diego until ordered to sea, at which time they fully activate the ship to an Echelon III Medical Treatment Facility. While the Navy’s Military Sealift Command is responsible for navigation, propulsion and deck duties, a Navy captain of the Navy’s Medical Corps commands the medical treatment facility.

“Having participated in Pacific Partnership 2009, I know firsthand what an impact we have on the local populations we visit,” said Capt. Jonathan Olmsted, of the Military Sealift Command and Mercy’s master. He had overall responsibility for the ship and safety of the nearly 1,000 passengers and crew aboard. “In building these relationships, we’ll have a better understanding of how multiple militaries and civilian organizations can work together to overcome the adversity of a natural disaster.”