Behind the Scenes: Take pride that our nation is first to help

By: Jim Ruffalo
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With moist eyes and usually a lump in the throat, most of us watch the herculean efforts turned in by rescuers and aid workers in Haiti. Maybe it’s because that nation is so close to our shores, or perhaps the reason is most of us realize that this was the worst possible country to have to undergo the horrors caused by an earthquake of historical proportions. Whatever the reasons, many of us utter prayers at night for the victims, and the brighter among us also have whispered to God a request to keep the rescuers safe. As usual, it’s the good-old U.S.A. in the forefront of the trying to make things right in an area turned upside-down. No, it’s not a jingoistic attitude that produced that preceding sentence. Instead, it’s the pride all of us should feel that we remain the most generous country on the planet, despite the on-going financial upheaval. And being a U.S. Navy vet, I’m especially proud of the work of our military. But probably nowhere near as proud as North Auburn alpaca rancher Bonnie Potter. Potter currently serves as the head of the Placer County branch of the Navy League, but in her previous life, she served three decades in the Navy, achieving the rank of rear admiral. During that lengthy stint, she was the director of medical services for the USS Comfort, that gigantic floating hospital now at Haiti. The ship — a converted supertanker — weighs close to 70,000 tons and is nearly 900 feet long. “I was so proud of how fast they got the ship to Haiti,” she said, explaining that the Comfort normally is based at Baltimore with a skeleton crew of about 60. “In just 60 hours they got her to Norfolk for supplies and then to Haiti. Usually it takes about five days to activate the ship,” she added. Those supplies didn’t consist of just provisions and medicine, but also included reinforcing the ship’s complement to about 1,200 people. By the way, that larger crew also contains some civilians. Potter, whose service aboard the Comfort was during Operation Desert Storm, points out that the ship is so complex that — usually — wherever she goes, she immediately becomes the primary hospital in that area, as was the case at New Orleans during Katrina. She’s well aware of what it takes to get that ship fully staffed and stocked. Desert Storm (1990-91) was the Comfort’s first deployment and as it made the 10-day journey to the Gulf, the crew had to unpack crates and literally put beds together, build laboratories and string miles of wires and hoses in order to turn the ship into one of the best hospitals in the world. “It has 1,000 beds, plus another 50 in casualty receiving (the equivalent of an emergency room). It also has 12 operating rooms, full X-ray and CT scan facilities, ICU, dialysis and a large array of labs,” she said. Potter, who also once was chief of medicine at the famed Bethesda facility at Washington D.C., fondly remembers her time aboard the Comfort. “It was a great experience and I know just what (the crew) is feeling right now. You train your whole military career for something you hope never happens, but when the troops go into harm’s way or when disasters hit, you feel this pride of being able to do something about it,” Potter said. “There’s something about the feeling one has about this country when you see how much we’re willing to do to save lives, to take a national asset such as the Comfort and send it to help other countries.” Actually, this is Comfort’s second tour of Haiti. In 1994 it served as the Migrant Processing Center as that poor country tried to heal from the woes previously heaped upon it by Papa and Baby Doc. Which makes Potter’s premise all the more correct about how willing this country is to help anywhere and anytime ... Correction: I need to apologize to Auburn City Council-member Kevin Hanley. Last week, I wrote about fellow council member Bill Kirby’s efforts to get a hot Christmas meal to the city employees who had to work that day. In that column, I said that Mike Holmes was out of town and, thus, couldn’t help with the deliveries. Actually, it was Hanley, not Holmes. Not only that, Kirby says the whole idea was Hanley’s. I’ve tried calling Hanley to apologize, but he’s been busy at Sacramento in his day job, which involves trying to carve a budget out of the rotting fiscal carcass left there by recent and current legislatures. Good thing I missed him. Knowing Hanley, he would have tried to talk me out of running this correction. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs Sundays in the Journal. Reach him at