Pacific Partnership 2012 (PP12)/USNS Mercy is currently anchored about 10 minutes off shore near the city of Calbayog, Samar Island, Republic of the Philippines. U.S. Ambassador Harry Thomas attended the opening ceremony on June 19, and noted in his speech that USNS Mercy first visited Calbayog on its maiden voyage 25 years ago. Pacific Partnership 2008 also stopped in Calbayog, so we are finding many old friends in the community. As always, the interaction with local communities and people is the highlight of the mission.
Pacific Partnership offers an experience of a lifetime, but the day-to-day work is hardly a pleasure cruise. To describe volunteer life, the U.S. Peace Corps often uses the phrase, "The toughest job you'll ever love!" Many PP12 participants can relate to that motto. Living spaces are cramped, and include bunk beds and a sink, with restrooms and showers down the passageway. Meals are served at fixed times, and there is no raiding the refrigerator overnight. The work day starts at first light, or prior. Those traveling and working ashore need to muster in Mercy's casualty reception area, then board either a Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) hovercraft (LCAC) or one of our small utility boats; the hovercraft normally carries equipment on its open deck, but for our purposes a large metal "personnel module" is bolted to the deck, and as many as 130 passengers file into the four rows of facing seats. (This is not for the claustrophobic!)
The JMSDF ship Oosumi, a 584-foot amphibious landing ship, joined Pacific Partnership here in the Philippines, and will also participate in the mission to Vinh, Vietnam in July. Once ashore, PP12 personnel pile into 12-passenger vans to be driven to individual towns and work-sites from 10 minutes to two hours away. Most of the work sites are open air, or schools/clinics without air conditioning, and the heat index usually hovers around 120 degrees.
In spite of the hardships, personnel at clinics, seminars, and communities up and down the coast are emphatically upbeat. PP12 has set new "records" for the highest number of surgeries (36) in a day on Mercy and the highest number of patients (749*) seen during a daily Medical Civic Action Program, or MEDCAP. At a VETCAP (veterinary clinic) I visited on June 23, one of the participants was teaching local kids how to throw a Frisbee; at a MEDCAP, several of the JMSDF officers were demonstrating origami folds, and making very cool origami hats from newspapers -- much appreciated in the scorching courtyard where lines of patients were forming. Creativity and high morale remain in impressive supply.
Editor's Note: DipNote originally reported that MEDCAP saw 689 patients in one day. On June 26, Pacific Partnership provided an update that the correct number was 749 patients, a record for the mission. This correction has been made to the text of the entry.