USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) departed Naval Station Norfolk,Va., for a five-month deployment to provide medical assistance to the Caribbean and South America on Friday.
Comfort is scheduled to visit several nations, but the primary mission of this deployment is to provide treatment to refugees fleeing Venezuela and overwhelming the health systems of neighboring countries, according to U.S. Southern Command.
Comfort is making its second trip to the region in the past six months. Since 2007, Comfort has made seven deployments to the region. Mission stops are scheduled for Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Saint Lucia and St. Kitts and Nevis.
The port visit to Colombia is significant because for the past few years, as the Venezuelan economy has tanked and political unrest has grown, large numbers of Venezuelans have flooded into neighboring Colombia. By some accounts, more than 3 million Venezuelans have fled their nation, according to a BBC news report.
In May, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan met with Colombian Vice President Marta Ramírez at the Pentagon to discuss Venezuela. At the time, in comments to the press, Shanahan explained sending Comfort to the region was part of a larger effort to work with Colombia to resolve the situation.
“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 in May, according to a Pentagon press pool account.
Last year, the U.S. was not the only nation sending a hospital ship to provide medical care in the region. China’s People Liberation Army Navy hospital ship Peace Ark (Hull 866) stopped in both Venezuela and Colombia during a deployment in the Pacific and Caribbean last summer, according to a Chinese military statement.
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.