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Hospital ship stands ready, but in hope it is not needed

The crew of the hospital ship USNS Comfort did not treat a single battlefield casualty during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They're hoping for a repeat performance if there is another conflict with Iraq.

The Comfort, a floating hospital with a crew of more than 1,200 sailors and civilians, is back in the Persian Gulf, part of a broad mobilization of U.S. and allied air, land and sea forces.

The ship's commander, Capt. Charles Blankenship, runs the hospital and was the vessel's head of surgery during the Gulf War.

"Before the fighting, most of the time we were treating athletic injuries, like twisted knees, and maybe some shootings from training accidents," he said.

But "once the war actually started, we didn't have a single patient," he said. "That's kind of what we're hoping for this time."

But, he added, "we're preparing for the worst."

The Comfort has 1,000 beds, an emergency room, operating rooms, an intensive care unit and decontamination facilities in case of a chemical or nuclear attack.

"We can do the same things here that can be done at any major U.S. medical facility," Blankenship said.

Among the ship's 62 doctors, most of whom are Navy physicians from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., are two neurosurgeons, a plastic surgeon and a pediatrician. The only procedures that can't be done on board are heart surgery and transplants.

A blood bank normally holds more than 3,000 units of blood, a good portion of which is kept frozen.

If there is a conflict with Iraq, the Comfort will sail in the northern Persian Gulf with other U.S. and allied ships, but to set it apart, it is painted white, not gray, and has three large red crosses on each side.