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US hospital ship readies to sail for Gulf area

January 05, 2003

BALTIMORE, Jan 4: Cranes hoisted tons of food and medical supplies aboard the USNS Comfort as the Navy hospital ship prepared over the weekend to join US forces gathering around the Gulf for possible war with Iraq.

The white vessel, a converted oil tanker about 272 metres long, was due to sail from Baltimore as early as Monday, carrying about 300 active-duty Navy medics and 61 civilian mariners to the Indian Ocean.

The Comfort, one of two 1,000-bed Navy hospital ships, is designed to provide on-site care for US forces in conflict.

Its activation was part of a major military buildup that signalled President George W. Bush’s commitment to forcing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to give up any programmes he has to make nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

Nearly 60,000 US military personnel are already in the Gulf and that number could double in coming weeks.

“The ship is not being deployed fully staffed,” Military Sealift Command spokesman William Talley said on Friday, adding that more officers could be flown to the ship once it arrived at its destination, which officers declined to specify.

THREE-WEEK TRIP ACROSS THE SEA: Only three doctors — two surgeons and one general practitioner — will make the three-week trip across the Atlantic.

At full capacity, the Navy hospital accommodates 1,200 medics who run 12 operating rooms as well as intensive care units, recovery areas and diagnostic services like X-rays, as well as CAT scan and angioplasty equipment.

“We’ve got what a lot of rural hospitals don’t even have,” Talley told Reuters on a tour of the ship.

Three decontamination stations, through which all patients pass upon admittance to the hospital, will isolate biological and chemical agents and decontaminate affected US soldiers.

Aboard the noncombatant ship, painted white with red crosses representing its medical mission, dozens of Navy staff helped store boxed supplies.

“We’ve got everything from medical equipment to root beer to food to laundry detergent,” said Cristina McGlew, a command spokeswoman watching supplies being loaded onto the ship’s helicopter landing pads. “It’s like a little city.”—Reuters