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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

USNS Comfort deploys to Latin America

Captain Kevin D. Buckley, Medical Corps United States Navy, Commanding Officer; Captain William K. Shafley III, United States Navy Deputy Commodore; and Captain David Murrin, Master USNS Comfort
Washington, DC
October 9, 2018




FOREIGN PRESS CENTER TELEPHONIC BRIEFING WITH CAPTAIN KEVIN D. BUCKLEY, MEDICAL CORPS UNITED STATES NAVY, COMMANDING OFFICER; CAPTAIN WILLIAM K. SHAFLEY III, UNITED STATES NAVY DEPUTY COMMODORE; AND CAPTAIN DAVID MURRIN, MASTER USNS COMFORT

TOPIC: USNS COMFORT DEPLOYS TO LATIN AMERICA

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2018, 1:00 P.M. EDT

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome, virtually speaking, to the Foreign Press Center. My name is Benjamin Weber, and I am the director. I am very, very pleased today to be partnering with the United States Navy, the USNS Comfort, and Southern Command to bring this call.

I’ll keep my introduction brief. Captains Buckley, Shafley, and Murrin will be speaking about the upcoming deployment to Latin America. Let me please specify that this briefing is very narrowly focused on that particular topic, and we will not be discussing either larger issues of U.S.-Latin America policy or U.S. military policy. If you have questions on those subjects, please feel free to send them by email to me at dcfpc@state.gov, and we’ll make sure that gets routed to the appropriate offices for response. I’d also like you to ask – to ask please that you observe an embargo to the end of this call.

And with that, I will hand it over first to the USNS Comfort public affairs team for introductions, and then AT&T will give further instructions about asking questions. Thank you very much.

LTJG COLLINS: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us. I’m Lieutenant, j.g., Kassandra Collins. I’m representing the public affairs team here with our three leaders, Captain Shafley, Captain Buckley, and Captain Murrin. We are very much looking forward to today’s conference. And with that, I will introduce Captain Shafley.

CAPT SHAFLEY: Sure. Good afternoon. Captain Bill Shafley. I’m the task force commander for the Comfort mission to the Caribbean and South America. I’m joined with Captain Kevin Buckley, the medical treatment facility commander, and Captain David Murrin, the Military Sealift Command vessel master.

We’re really excited to be taking Comfort down to the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility for the sixth time. Our 11-week medical mission is designed to provide treatment to folks in need down there in the Southern Command area of responsibility. Very excited to bring this team of about 900 people down to the area and begin work with our partner nations and friends in the region.

CAPT BUCKLEY: Good morning, or good afternoon. This is Captain Kevin Buckley. I’m a physician, emergency medicine physician, trained, dual board certified in pediatric emergency medicine, and I am the commanding officer of the medical treatment facility, because they don’t want doctors driving ships this big. So I’m in charge of the hospital at the station on the ship. And I’ll turn it over to the person who’s in charge of the ship.

CAPT MURRIN: Good afternoon. My name is Captain David Murrin. I’m the civilian master on board, licensed merchant marine, master mariner. My primary job aboard, of course, is the safe navigation of the ship and SOLAS, which is Safety of Life at Sea.

LTJG COLLINS: And those are our introductions.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. If we can ask AT&T to review the instructions for posing questions, we’ll proceed with the Q&A.

OPERATOR: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. If you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone.

Our first question comes from the line of Cristobal Vasquez with Caracol Radio. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you very much for the opportunity. I would like to know how often you make this trip to Latin America and if there is any focus in treating the Venezuelans that are actually – who live in the country and a large part of them are finding shelter in Colombia.

LTJG COLLINS: If you could repeat the question. That came in – that did not come in clearly.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. Sure. Yeah. I would like to know, you’ve mentioned you’ve done this six times in the past. How often you do these trips and if your focus is going to be on Venezuelan citizens that are leaving the country given the humanitarian situation in Venezuela?

CAPT SHAFLEY: Yeah, hey. Good afternoon, Cristobal, and thank you for the question. Comfort has deployed to the region, like I said, about six times in the previous missions, most recently in Continuing Promise 2015.

The second part of your question about Venezuelan migrants specifically, the Comfort mission is designed to enter the area and partner with our – with the local health ministries in the region to provide care for all patients in need and to provide a little bit of extra support for the local healthcare systems.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Luis Alonso with the Associated Press. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Good afternoon. Many thanks for doing this. I would like to follow up on Cristobal’s question. My understanding was that the interest, the focus of this deployment was to take care of mainly Venezuelans fleeing Venezuela, but by the answer I just heard has got me confused. It seems like that’s not the main point of the mission.

And also, I would like to know whether – to confirm that before the deployment, of course – well, it might seem an obvious question but I want to confirm. Every country that is going to be hosting the trip, the governments have already approved this, of course? And that’s it. Thank you.

CAPT SHAFLEY: Luis, this is Captain Shafley, and thank you for your question. Again, I’d like to reiterate that Comfort’s mission in the area of responsibility is all surrounding treating patients in need. We’ll be visiting Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Honduras during our 71-day mission to the area.

And finally, I’d like to add that our focus is to serve those in need, not specific nationalities of citizens that could use our assistance.

LTJG COLLINS: Are we still on the line?

MODERATOR: Yes, I just want to take another. Do we have a next question in the queue? This is FPC.

OPERATOR: Yes, the next question comes from the line of Rafael Salido with EFE News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello. Thank you very much for doing this. I have two very technical questions that I would like to ask. First of all, if you have a specific date for when the USNS Comfort will be arriving to the coast of Colombia. And also I would like to know in which of the – in which part of the coast of Colombia is it going to be deployed? Is it going to be in the Pacific side or is it going to be staying more in the Atlantic Ocean side of the seacoast? Thank you very much.

CAPT SHAFLEY: Yeah, Rafael, this is Captain Shafley again, and thank you for your question. I’ll answer your second question first. We will be operating on both the Atlantic side and the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. And your first question, regarding dates: We will release the cities that we are visiting as we near closer to those dates.

QUESTION: Pardon?

CAPT SHAFLEY: I can tell you that I will be visiting Turbo and Riohacha, Colombia. But I will not release the dates of those visits.

OPERATOR: We have a follow-up question from Cristobal Vasquez with Caracol Radio. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much for the follow-up question. Two questions. First, have you talked – are you in communication with the Chinese, who also deployed a hospital ship to the Venezuelan coast in order to help the Venezuelans in terms of their health issues? And have you received any response from the Colombian Government, any sort of reaction from the Colombian Government, taking into account that you’ll be going to the Pacific and the Atlantic coast of Colombia?

CAPT SHAFLEY: Cristobal, thank you for your follow-up questions. I’ll address the first one on China. No, we have not been in contact with the Chinese on this – on their particular mission. Any assistance that they are providing to people in need in the area should be addressed with them. We certainly are – anybody that’s providing humanitarian assistance in the region is always welcome to do so.

Secondly, with regard to Colombia, we have been invited by the Colombian Government to make stops in Riohacha and Turbo, and we look forward to that continued collaboration with the Government of Colombia as we conduct this mission.

OPERATOR: Thank you. There are no questions in the queue. Please, continue.

MODERATOR: Okay, I will make – this is the Foreign Press Center. I will make one last call for questions, if they are. Then --

OPERATOR: Once again, if you have a question, please press * then 1 on the telephone keypad. We have a question from the line of Lioman Lima with BBC World News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, I would like to stay with this topic, the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, because I got a communication from the Venezuelans saying that the ship will include addressing impact of this Venezuelan humanitarian crisis during its trip, but now you are saying that this is not one of the goals of the trip.

CAPT SHAFLEY: Yes, thank you for your question. First of all, I just want to reiterate that the Comfort’s mission to the area of responsibility was designed to help relieve the pressure on national medical systems caused partly by the increase in cross-border migration. I would also offer that in Colombia there will certainly be Venezuelan patients with medical needs, but there will also be Colombians there as well. Our presence is aimed at relieving that pressure on the health systems there that are currently being experienced.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from the line of Alina Dieste with AFP. Please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you for having us. I’d like to know what are the main problems you think you will encounter in the region when you get there. And my second question has to do with the opposition that – well, not opposition but a criticism by the Venezuelan Government of this mission, if you think – because they have been saying that it’s really like a spy boat, not a relief boat. So what do you say about that? Thank you.

CAPT BUCKLEY: This is Captain Buckley, the commanding officer of the hospital part, or the head doc. We’ll have – we’ll be going down there to provide ambulatory care, adult, pediatric, dermatology, public health, and women’s health on two med sites that are going out, and then we’ll have a number of surgical cases, including ophthalmology and dental and minor cases like hernia repairs that have – low-risk patients – that have high economic impact to the people. That will be – those will be performed onboard the ship. We expect about 750 people per day per each med site and about a hundred overall cases, surgical cases onboard the ship, per country visit.

I think that’s the part – for the medical part, I’ll leave it to commander – the commodore to answer the other question.

CAPT SHAFLEY: And to address the second issue – this is Captain Shafley again, the mission commander. To address the second or the first part of your question, the planning that’s gone into this event has been done from a position of friendship, partnership, and solidarity with the countries that we’re partnering with. Our whole idea is to go down into the area and partner up with these nations to conduct and provide treatment.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Thank you, and we have another question from Cristobal Vasquez with Caracol Radio. Your line is open, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you. One last question. Can you please tell us how much is going to be this mission around Central and Latin America in terms of costs? And in terms of time, how much time are you going to be staying in Colombia and in other countries? Are you going to be mainly staying in Colombia during your trip, or are you going to be sort of dividing in equal parts your trip around Latin America?

CAPT SHAFLEY: Thank you, Cristobal, for your follow-up. This is Captain Shafley again. I’ll discuss the question about durations. Each mission stop will consist of about five to seven days of treatment operations, and to discuss the cost of this operation I would offer that it’s hard to put a dollar figure on the value that we get by working with national partners and organizations that we’ll be working with there. The average ballpark figure that we’re looking at is about $33 million in investment that will allow us to improve the region’s ability to respond to crisis.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: There are no questions in the queue. Please, continue.

MODERATOR: This is the Foreign Press Center again. We’ll take one last call for questions before we thank our briefers. Would anyone else like to put a question to the team?

OPERATOR: Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question – press * then 1 on your touchtone phone if you have one more question. There are no questions in the queue. Please, continue.

MODERATOR: All right. Well, then let me on behalf of the Foreign Press Center and our members who are participating in this call once again thank the team from the USNS Comfort and our partners in the United States Navy and U.S. SOUTHCOM. If you have any closing remarks, I can hand the floor to you.

LTJG COLLINS: Yes, this is Lieutenant, j.g., Kassandra Collins again. On behalf of the Comfort and its leadership, we would just like to thank you for the opportunity today to speak with the press, and we look forward to engaging more once we begin our journey later this (inaudible).

MODERATOR: Thank you very, very much. So if I could ask for any follow-up questions to be sent, as I said, to dcfpc@state.gov, and please know that we will be forwarding you press releases and social media as they become available about the USNS Comfort’s journey. We wish them fair winds and a following sea, I believe is the correct expression, and thank you all for participating today. The embargo on the call is lifted.

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