ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT, Oct 7 (Reuters) A US Navy hospital ship finished a four-month humanitarian mission that offered a glimpse of the Pentagon's plan to play a greater public diplomacy role in Latin America and Africa.
The USNS Comfort made stops in a dozen countries, treated more than 97,000 people and performed nearly 380,000 medical treatments and procedures on a mission aimed at building goodwill for the United States in Latin America and the Caribbean.
''This is part of the evolving mission of the Southern Command,'' US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, using the name of the US military unit responsible for operations in Latin America. The Pentagon organizes its military operations into geographic commands.
''These are the kinds of missions that we have in mind in connection with our new command, the Africa Command, to focus on building partnerships and increasing the capabilities of individual countries in being able to deal with these challenges,'' he told reporters after a visit to the ship now anchored off Suriname's coast.
The US military has conducted humanitarian missions for years, responding to natural disasters in the United States and abroad, for example. But the Pentagon has begun to view humanitarian missions as critical to its operations in some areas, especially where poor health, poverty and crime are seen as major security problems.
The Comfort, in addition to treating patients, trained medical professionals and fixed about 1,000 pieces of equipment at local medical facilities. While helping the US image, the effort also enhanced those countries' ability to provide care, defense officials and members of the ship's crew said yesterday.
''Historically, combatant commands have been set up to deal with primarily the military threats in their region. They've been focused on the hard side of military matters,'' said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. ''What is happening particularly in SouthCom is an attempt to complement the hard side with more humanitarian assistance, the soft side.'' VENEZUELAN INFLUENCE? The US military's medical mission in Central and South America comes as Washington faces a growing challenge to its influence in the region from the leftist governments of Venezuela and Cuba. Cuba provides regular medical services to many countries and Venezuela helps its allies in Latin America with subsidized oil and various aid projects.
But Gates rejected the suggestion that the mission of the Comfort hospital ship was aimed at countering the influence of Venezuela or Cuba.
''The mission of the Comfort was not directed against anyone. It was directed for and toward the people of Central and South America,'' he said.
The Comfort's facilities are like those found in most US hospitals, except that they sway with the water's currents. Its operating room is at the center of the ship to minimize that motion, but even in waters the crew called calm, the shifting of the ship yesterday made the unaccustomed struggle to walk a straight line.
Gates and Suriname's defense minister, Ivan Fernald, toured the ship on the last day of its mission. Fernald spoke with the remaining six patients, many of whom ducked under their blue hospital blankets as the Pentagon chief's entourage and accompanying cameras filed into the room.
''I think it's a success,'' Fernald said. ''My people are very delighted.'' REUTERS PD PM9000