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Donna Miles, Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs
PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti -04.15.2009
Eighty-five-year-old Simone Alexis arrived at a medical clinic set up by the crew of USNS Comfort wearing her Sunday best in anticipation of getting new eyeglasses.
Taking her seat alongside other senior citizens and little girls from a local orphanage, Alexis patiently waited for Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Martinez to call her into a tent to administer an eye exam.
With nine years as a Navy ophthalmic technician and a current assignment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Martinez has conducted more eye exams than he can count. But rarely, he said, is the need as great - or the service as welcomed - as by patients like Alexis receiving medical and dental care during Continuing Promise 2009.
Martinez gave Alexis two sets of glasses, one for reading and one for distance, then held up a chart up for her to read. Alexis erupted into a broad smile and thanked Martinez through an interpreter for his help.
Volunteer interpreters abound here during Continuing Promise, clearly identified by the bright yellow T-shirts they wear both on the USNS Comfort hospital ship and at medical clinics and other operations providing services ashore. But as the Comfort crew and Haitian patients alike are coming to realize, appreciation has a universal language all its own.
It comes in many forms: a shy little smile from a pig-tailed orphan who's had her first dental checkup; the wide-eyed curiosity of a toddler as the pediatric surgeon who operated on him the previous day conducts a post-operative exam; the appreciation expressed by a mother whose child will no longer have to grow up with a deforming cleft palate.
"I hear the words 'God bless you' every day," said Air Force Airman 1st Class Shaquonique Jones, an ophthalmic technician based at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.
"Being here can be emotionally hard, knowing that we can only do so much for so many," she said. "But we know that we're actually helping people, and it's evident how grateful they are."
Army Spc. John Lewis, a reservist from Camp Robinson, Ark., has seen that gratitude at the Cite Soleil clinic, where he serves as a dental assistant. "Everybody leaves here with a smile, even if they've had [a tooth] extraction," he said. "You just can't not feel good about what you do here."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Shelly Winings, an X-ray technician at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., said she's amazed at the outpouring of appreciation she sees among the patients she works with aboard ship and at onshore medical centers.
'They're so grateful, and they tell you 'Merci,'" Winings said. "I thought language barriers would be a problem here, but it's that smile that does it all for you. It says it all, and makes you so grateful to be here."
Martinez agreed that that gratitude is the big reward of the job.
"The best part of it is when all of a sudden, you put glasses on someone and they start looking all over the place with a big smile," he said. "It's really wonderful, and it makes you feel great."
The smiles USNS Comfort is delivering to Haiti are the first during its four-month humanitarian assistance mission.
After leaving here April 19, Comfort and its crew will visit Antigua, Barbuda, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama, before returning to the United States.