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Reports from Battle: Airman deploys with Navy aboard ship

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Mindy Bloem
  • 43rd Airlift Wing, Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is part two of a four-week series, profiling Pope members who are currently deployed or have recently returned from deployment. 

Before getting a spot aboard the USNS Comfort, one persistent Airman made it her objective to pay regular visits to her Unit Deployment Manager's office to inquire about deployment opportunities. 

Her persistence paid off, and Senior Airman Adrianna Ortner, a health services manager, found herself on the other end of a phone call being asked to say something in Spanish - a request she, a bi-linguist, had no problem with. Her ability to speak Spanish fluently qualified her to go on a humanitarian mission in support of Operation Continuing Promise; and before she knew it, Airman Ortner was boarding a Navy ship where she would spend the next four months deployed at sea. 

The mission was a unique one for the Airman, and when she was issued only a mosquito net for the deployment, her curiosity was piqued. 

Once aboard the USNS Comfort, she set up her minimal supplies in the berthing area she would be sleeping in for the next four months. 

"I didn't really know what to expect," Airman Ortner said. "It was mostly run by the Navy although there were people there from all the other military branches and some other civilian and government organizations as well. 

"It was really different living on a ship. The living quarters were really tight and always kept at 55 degrees so I had to buy some blankets from the Navy Exchange." 

But Airman Ortner wasn't sure what her job duties would entail until she in-processed and learned she would be pulling double duty working in patient administration and as a translator. 

When she was told to "muster" the next morning at 7 a.m., the gravity of the situation hit her. 

"At the time, no other Air Force members had arrived yet," she recalled. "I was getting all these new terminologies thrown at me, and I was just trying to make mental notes and keep up. I hadn't gotten to know my co-workers yet. I missed my husband and I was just trying not to choke up." 

Airman Ortner didn't have much time to dwell on her loneliness because she soon found herself busy with her hectic schedule and patient responsibilities. 

The members of the USNS Comfort provided humanitarian care to seven countries: Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Antigua. 

"We had the same mission in each country," Airman Ortner said. "The first two days were surgical screening days to find out who qualified for surgery. We set up in places like schools or gyms to do clinical care. Those days were always crazy chaotic. Lines of people at least a mile long were waiting to get inside. Many people would sleep outside just for a place in line. 

"It was sad at times because people would be outside the gates before we let them in, and they'd be signaling me to come over and help them. It could be overwhelming because so many people needed care, but you couldn't help everyone." 

All of the patients who were to board the ship for care had to be tested for Tuberculosis. If they tested positive, they were not allowed to board the ship. An unfortunate reality one had to strictly follow to ensure the safety of the others aboard the vessel. 

"It was heartbreaking when you had to turn someone down due to procedures." 

Aside from the handfuls turned away, there were scores of people who were helped by the humanitarian effort, and Airman Ortner remembers several incidences. 

One involved a little boy from Columbia who suffered from Harlequin-type ichthyosis disease, a skin disease where the body does not regenerate skin cells, creating a scale-like appearance. 

Airman Ortner said he was 9 years old but looked like he was 7 and had the same skin since he was born. His mouth was wide open and he couldn't blink. 

The doctors were able to provide him with surgery so he could blink. They also sent his case to his country's agency and got him approved for another surgery. 

"It makes you think about how we stress about the smallest things like 'my hair looks like crap' or 'I gained five pounds.' It taught me to appreciate things more. I have so much. I've found that I don't splurge on things since returning from that deployment. In fact, I went through my closet when I got back and donated a ton of my stuff." 

Although Airman Ortner knows the deployment was stressful (she lost 20 pounds just from being "on the go" for hours on end), she also knows it was one of the most rewarding experiences of her Air Force career. 

"The best part was being able to see the 'before and after' effect of the people you helped. A lot of patients cry. Parents bring food and gifts, and you can just tell that no words can define what they're feeling." 

"I want to do more," Airman Ortner added. "Before I was living more for myself. I feel like I was more selfish, but now I want to do more to help others."