USNS Comfort Heading to Colombia to Treat Venezuelan Refugees

May 7, 2019 4:59 PM - Updated: May 8, 2019 5:58 AM
USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) is anchored off the coast of Honduras as part of an 11-week medical support mission to Central and South America as part of U.S. Southern Command’s Enduring Promise initiative on Dec. 6, 2018. US Navy Photo

Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) is expected in June to start a five-month Caribbean deployment to provide humanitarian and medical assistance to the region, notable to refugees flooding into Colombia from neighboring Venezuela.

Comfort’s departure will mark the seventh deployment to the Caribbean since 2007 and is the second planned deployment to South America in the last six months. Last fall, Comfort sailed to Colombia, at the request of the government, to provide medical care to Venezuelan refugees.

“U.S. Southern Command is committed to the region in support of our Caribbean and Latin American partners, as well as displaced Venezuelans who continue to flee the brutal oppression of the former Maduro regime and its interlocking, man-made political, economic and humanitarian crises,” Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) said in a statement Tuesday about June’s deployment.

Comfort is a 250-bed hospital that can accommodate several hundred Navy medical staff onboard, including pediatricians, surgeons, nurse practitioners, surgical technicians and various support personnel, according to the Navy.

June’s deployment, however, appears to be part of a broader strategy the U.S. is developing with the government in Colombia, according to comments made to the Pentagon press corps Tuesday by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

“It’s not about sending a ship down. You have to get doctors and nurses, so it’s very highly choreographed in terms of the people that you have to put in place. So that gives you a sense of the planning that we are doing. But as you recall last week with all the events, it’s been a very fluid situation. I had Adm. Faller here from SOUTHCOM, and we spent the better part of Friday being very well coordinated on our plans within the U.S. government as well as making adjustments. This meeting was always planned because what we want to do is to continue to refine our efforts, not just one a humanitarian basis, which is the USS Comfort, but also our work with Colombia,” Shanahan said, according to a Pentagon press pool account.

Shanahan met with Colombian Vice President Marta Ramírez at the Pentagon Tuesday to discuss Venezuela.

Last year, Comfort wasn’t the only hospital ship to visit the region. Shortly before Comfort’s trip to Colombia, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy’s hospital ship Peace Ark (Hull 866) sailed to Venezuela, providing free medical care for about a week, according to a Chinese military statement.

Shanahan and Lucía Ramírez issued the following joint statement after their Tuesday meeting.

“Today our Nations confirmed our mutual commitment to the freedom-loving people of Venezuela amidst the ongoing crisis in their country. Together we call for Nicolás Maduro to step down and allow the peaceful transition of power to Juan Guaidó, the legitimate leader of Venezuela who is officially recognized by 54 countries around the world, and the democratically elected National Assembly.

“The U.S. – Colombia defense relationship is stronger than ever. Together we stand committed to resolving the humanitarian crisis in our hemisphere, in stark contrast with malign foreign attempts to interfere militarily. We look forward to the day we can rebuild a relationship with Venezuela’s military.”

Ben Werner

Ben Werner

Ben Werner is a staff writer for USNI News. He has worked as a freelance writer in Busan, South Korea, and as a staff writer covering education and publicly traded companies for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore Business Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from New York University.

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