In May 2012, the USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) departed from San Diego, Calif., for a unique mission of training and service. Each year, the mission—known as Pacific Partnership—brings together knowledge and skills of the U.S. military, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international partner nations to “prepare in calm to respond in crisis.”
This was Pacific Partnership’s seventh year of service, traveling to Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia—regions that experienced tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other natural disasters in recent years.
O.T. “Ted” Wendel, PhD, vice president for Arizona operations, was aboard the USNS Mercy as a photojournalist. Here are excerpts from his voyage, in his own words and photos.
Monday, June 18
They tell me there are 96 stairs between my duty station and my berth. I haven’t counted them, but yesterday, my first day aboard the USNS Mercy, I climbed those stairs eight times. Climbing stairs, meeting people, and waiting in line to climb more stairs—that is the life for a new NGO on a ship that will serve as a highly visible ambassador for the next two months.
Monday, June 25
Yesterday afternoon, Joy, a 22-year-old woman born with bilateral cataracts, was seen at one of the medical civic action projects set up on the island of Samar, Philippines, by the Mercy medical teams. Joy had no discernible vision and could make out little beyond light and dark. The surgeons recognized a chance to make a dramatic change in this young woman’s life.
Dr. John Jarsted, a volunteer ophthalmic surgeon from Federal Way, Wash., removed the cataract. The surgery was short, and three hours later the patch was removed from her right eye. I was there to capture the moment her world changed —the moment she saw her mother’s face for the first time.
Wednesday, June 27
My search for a story took me to the dental ward where I met Dr. David Allen. He was reviewing a dental X-ray from a 6-year-old girl, Victoria—a beautiful child who lives with her mother and grandfather in Calbayog on the island of Samar, Philippines. Every day her grandfather walks her to a little shop and buys her a piece of candy. This routine has been repeated each day for four years. Victoria saves the candy to eat just before bedtime. She doesn’t own a toothbrush. The X-ray revealed that Victoria doesn’t have one tooth without decay.
Friday, June 29
On most days, my “commute” to shore is on a Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC). It’s best described as a hovercraft used to transport a large number of passengers quickly to shore. Yesterday my assignment was to photograph the LCAC being launched from the rear of the Ohsumi. I spent an hour bobbing about in a small boat waiting for the LCAC to slide down the ramp into the bay and then quickly drench me with a large rooster tail of water as it departed to shore.
Saturday, July 7
This is the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense ship, Ohsumi, at sunset. I took this picture as I returned from my first day ashore in the Philippines.
Saturday, July 14
The descent into the engine room was intimidating and hot! The USNS Mercy is powered by steam, which is created in a big, hot boiler. This photograph of the engine room gives you a perspective on the massive size of this hot room and the intricate web of machinery and pipes.
Sunday, July 15
Last Thursday we visited a site where the Seabees were building a new clinic. This Vietnamese gentleman peered over the wall adjacent to the site and demanded that I take his picture. At least that’s what I think he was saying.
Tuesday, July 24
We explored the community of Cua Lo that surrounds the harbor. Within a few minutes, we had a crowd of curious locals following us. A few had things to sell us, but most were just anxious to gaze at the funny-looking foreigners. An ox-drawn cart joined our group and 35 locals. We became a parade.
Monday, July 30
The images of what happened here in Cambodia 30 years ago are difficult to put aside. Vivid memories of reports of atrocities and genocide flash back as we travel in a beautiful country with people who are some of the kindest, gentlest people anyone has ever met.
Monday, Aug. 13
I climbed those 96 stairs for one last time early this morning. I still paused at the top to pretend to tie my shoes so I could catch my breath. The pain was there today just like it was on my first day aboard the USNS Mercy. But, this time, the pain was more psychological than physical.
I functioned as a member of a highly skilled team that worked hard to get out the Pacific Partnership 2012 message. I found it isn’t easy to tell good news. The efforts of a very talented and committed group of medical, dental, and engineering professionals were largely ignored by the U.S. media. That disappoints me, but it doesn’t change how I feel about the experience.