With possibility of war in Iraq, Comfort is prepared for worst

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Navy Lt. Todd Larson will spend today getting his ship ready for war, just as he did yesterday.

Larson, 39, is a medical officer on the USNS Comfort, an 894-foot floating hospital that is to leave its port in Baltimore by the end of this week.

At all times -- especially now -- Larson's job is getting ready.

He's getting ready to bring nearly 300 people aboard the ship, which will be going to the Indian Ocean. He's getting the ship's 12 operating rooms ready to perform surgeries. He's getting ready to leave his wife and three children in Frederick. And he's getting ready for the worst weapons Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could unleash on American troops.

"I've got to prepare for the worst-case scenario I can think of," Larson said.

The Comfort, a converted oil tanker that was delivered to the Navy in 1987, is designed to take on troops exposed to chemical and biological weapons.

The first rooms off the ship's flight deck are the ones with tan metal doors where injured troops can be sealed inside and cleansed of chemicals.

The Comfort is where the injured come for immediate treatment and surgery. Typically, they are sent within five days to another facility.

As of yesterday, naval officials will only say the ship is leaving -- they won't say exactly when -- for Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean. That's about a three-week journey from Baltimore's Canton Pier, said Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Edward L. Austin.

The ship's deployment sends a message that the United States is ready to fight Iraq, he said.

Austin and Larson will be among the more than 225 naval personnel and 61 civilian sailors on board when the ship leaves. It will carry enough staff to handle two emergency rooms and a small number of the ship's 1,000 beds.

If more doctors, nurses and staff are needed, they will be flown to the ship. To use all the beds would require a crew of 1,200, Austin said.

Civilians sail the 10-story-tall white ship. Naval personnel do the rest -- perform surgeries, cook, wash laundry and direct helicopters to land on deck.

Larson is one of the 58 Navy officers and sailors assigned to the ship full time.

Austin is one of the many who will join the ship from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

Return voyage

Most of the crew members leaving this week have sailed aboard the Comfort before, Austin said.

It's a ship with elevators and a blood bank, and a hospital with hooks on the emergency room floor to anchor equipment.

It traveled to the Persian Gulf for seven months during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. More recently it deployed on Sept. 12, 2001, to New York, where its crew expected to treat survivors and ended up providing meals and laundry service to rescue workers. It went this summer on a six-week medical training mission to the Baltic, a mission that was a part of Estonia's continuing effort to join NATO.

Larson, a 20-year Navy veteran, joined the ship 18 months ago.

His title states that he's a medical officer. What it doesn't tell is that he's also one of three official fix-it people, a ship "fire chief" and the manager of half its medical operation.

"Being an [operating room] nurse is challenging," he said, "but not as challenging as this."

He can get the ship ready to sail in one day, as he did after the Sept. 11 attacks last year, and he's required to get it ready within five days.

Little surprise

The official sailing orders for the Comfort came down Friday. The Navy is also preparing other ships for possible action.

Given President Bush's strong displeasure with Iraq's report to the United Nations about its weapons capabilities, the Comfort's sailing orders were not a surprise.

"I watch the news like anybody else," Larson said. "I knew we were going to be leaving."

Austin, who is 40 and lives in Gaithersburg, said he knew, too. When he, his wife and their three sons went for Christmas pictures this year, he had his wife and the kids sit for a separate picture.

He will carry it with him on the ship.

Unlike Austin's family, two of Larson's three children are grown. They remember the early 1990s, the last time Iraq pulled him away from home, but his 9-year-old son, Jacob, wasn't born yet.

"He's a typical 9-year-old," Larson said. "He doesn't want his dad to go anywhere."

Larson was on land -- in the middle of the desert -- the last time the United States fought in Iraq. He set up a Marine tent hospital on the front lines at the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border. He said he will be safer this time.

"I get a hot shower every day," he said. "It's a better deal."

Austin, a 17-year Navy veteran, has also served in the Middle East. He was aboard the USS Nimitz for the Super Bowl in January 1998, and he remembers the ship's commanders asking a nearby ship to move so they could get better satellite television reception of the game.

Neither man thought he would be going back to the Middle East, especially so soon.

But yesterday, the sound of what many believe is an impending war against Iraq was audible at Canton Pier. It was the whir of a crane motor occasionally hoisting cargo onto the Comfort and clink of the tape measure used by Lt. Cmdr. Michele Loscocco -- a Navy physicist who won't be leaving on the ship -- as she set up the Comfort's new angiogram machine, a real-time X-ray machine for observing blood vessels.

Otherwise, the pier was silent.

Nearly all of the people who will sail with the ship were at home with their families during the early afternoon while Larson stored away surgery kits with reusable linens.

He'll keep working today, but yesterday afternoon he made the proclamation: "We're ready."

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