The journey took him to 12 countries in 154 days. It allowed him to play a part in the treatment of 68,935 foreign nationals. He built friendships with a sister service and earned their confidence to the point he was made an honorary Navy chief petty officer.
Everything Sgt. 1st Class Eric Kenney envisioned in the way of rewards came true during his recent voluntary deployment aboard the USNS Comfort as it participated in “Continuing Promise 2019,” a U.S. Southern Command mission in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Kenney, the noncommissioned officer in charge of Operations at Kenner Army Health Clinic, was at-sea for five months and returned in November. He and Maj. Jasmin Gregory from Public Health were the two clinic Soldiers who took part in the deployment. He contributed his expertise as an Army 68Q pharmacy technician.
“The first thing that drew me to this mission was the chance to work with the Navy,” the 18-year Soldier said. “When I saw it was a humanitarian mission for the Venezuelan Refugee Migrant Crisis, I got even more interested. There is a good-sized list of countries that were impacted, and I thought this would be a neat thing to do.”
For those unfamiliar with the crisis Kenney referred to, here’s a brief synopsis. About 4.5 million people have fled from the Venezuelan region where their lives were endangered by poverty, political strife and pervasive crime. Many flocked to the south and wound up in crowded refugee camps where host countries and world humanitarian agencies struggle to provide adequate shelter, food, medical care and other necessities. USNS Comfort has been activated three times within two years to contribute U.S. military support.
Kenney, who is married with five children, had less than two weeks to get himself deployment ready. Regional Health Command-Atlantic had put out a call for volunteers to fill a pharmacy position, and he jumped at the opportunity. A short while later, he was requesting permission to board the Mercy Class hospital ship departing from its Naval Station Norfolk homeport.
“Learning how to function in the sea service environment was the biggest challenge in the beginning,” Kenny recalled. “The learning curve was pretty steep, but I had every confidence I would adapt because that’s what we’re trained to do – get the mission, do the job and be part of the team.”
Sailors earn “sea cred” when their vessel is afloat. Kenney participated in a line-crossing ceremony when the ship reached the equator. “I was a pollywog at the beginning of the initiation – I really hadn’t figured out what that was up until then. Once we passed the equator line, I became an honorary shellback. That was my first introduction into Navy tradition.”
The Soldier who had been promoted to E-7 just prior to the deployment also was invited to take part in the chief petty officer initiation process. It is a six-week ordeal in which candidates tackle physical fitness activities, demonstrate knowledge of naval heritage, perform community service projects and more.
“I chose to go through it because I wanted to experience the meaning of being a chief petty officer,” Kenney acknowledged. “The higher ranking crewmembers and fellow chiefs respected that I went through the process. I think it also gave them a feeling of pride knowing an Army NCO felt it was important enough to go through it with them.”
Kenney excitedly recalled the moment of the deployment when he served as the leading chief petty officer for the Dominican Republic Medical Engagement Sites. Senior enlisted members orchestrated medical operations, often providing direction to medical providers, nursing staff, corpsman and ancillary services.
“We were responsible for 120 U.S. service members on an average day and upwards of 600-700 patients daily,” Kenney said. “In each country, we would set up two medical engagement sites resembling field hospitals. We would have general medicine, dental, radiology, physical therapy, dermatology, laboratory, pharmacy and optometry – pretty much a full-blown clinic. This was all free healthcare for anyone who showed up.”
The ship would spend 10 days in each country. Twelve-hour shifts for the crew onboard were common. Liberty was not a frequent luxury. Kenney remembers only two three-day breaks when they were allowed to leave the ship during daylight hours and be back onboard overnight.
“I suspect it was due to it being a high-visibility operation and the command not taking the risk of anyone getting in a predicament,” Kenney observed. “We got time off, but very little. The work itself, though, was very rewarding.
“All of us knew we were there to perform a mission,” Kenney said, continuing the thought. “The areas we went to – Central America, Columbia, the Caribbean and more – are mostly impoverished. Most of the people were in great need and had not had medical care in many years. When we saw them, we were able to provide basic healthcare in hopes to get them through the ministry healthcare pipeline for their respective country.”
The knowledge of the work’s importance was compounded by Kenney’s feeling of acceptance and professional acknowledgement.
“The entire Navy experience was positive,” he confirmed. “I really enjoyed the comradery and closeness of the Chief’s Mess and how we conducted business together. It’s far different than how the Army does it. We don’t have senior enlisted groups getting together to handle business like it was onboard with the chiefs. I learned so much that I’m going to keep in mind when I’m leading teams in the future.”