The 34th Surgeon General Looks Back on 9-11

By Vice Adm. (ret.) Michael Cowan, Medical Corps, USN

USNS Comfort sails past the Statue of Liberty as she steams into NYC Sept 2001. (U.S. Navy photo by JO1 Preston Keres)

Editor’s Note: Vice Adm. Michael Cowan was only thirty days into his tenure as Surgeon General of the Navy when the attacks on September 11th took place.(1)  Instantly, the world had changed and Navy Medicine’s course would forever be altered to meet the new challenges ahead.   In an oral history session with the BUMED Historian, Vice Adm. Cowan recalled those first days after September 11th, and discussed deploying USNS Comfort to New York City  where it served as a sanctuary for thousands of beleaguered rescue workers.(2)  The following is a brief excerpt of the session.

The first thing I did on September 11th was send all non-essential people and personnel home. The second thing I did was walk out to the flags, which until then the Navy medicine motto had been: “Standing by to Assist.” I changed them. I said, “You haul those flags down and you change it to: “Steaming to Assist” immediately.

When I showed up on August 10th and looked around, my first thought was, “Man, don’t let me screw this up.”

Things were working quite well. We were adequately funded and there were good people in place at all the key positions. My predecessor had done a nice job, which is the best way to go into a command, I think. (3) Everybody thinks they want to go into a command that’s really a mess so that they can clean it up. I want to go into a command that’s working well so I can take it to the next level. I thought, “This is really good. I’ve got some things I want to do, so let me take 30 days.”

So, I decided I’d take 30 days and come up with eight or ten priorities that would drive my time as Surgeon General. So on September 10, 2001, I finished those priorities. As I recall, that was a Monday.

On September 11th, I walked back to my desk about 10:30 in the morning and threw them in the trash can. Priorities had just changed. The first thing I did on September 11th was send all non-essential people and personnel home. The second thing I did was walk out to the flags, which until then the Navy medicine motto had been: “Standing by to Assist.” (4) I changed them. I said, “You haul those flags down and you change it to: “Steaming to Assist” immediately. We flew those flags that day. (5)

I got a call from the emergency management center in New York City, and they said, “We’re trashed. We think that we’re going to be medically overwhelmed. There are rescuers running all over the place that are injured. The two towers came down and we think that we need help. Can you send the Comfort?”

So we launched the Comfort. The next day, he called back and said, “We just realized that our situation is not what we thought it was. What we’ve got is if you were in the building, you died. If you were out of the building you lived, and there aren’t very many injuries. So medically, we were not overwhelmed, but we are overwhelmed with humanity. The island doesn’t have facilities. We’ve got firemen and rescuers and police digging through the rubble and sleeping on the hood of their engines; they’re going to be dirty and filthy; there’s no food. There’s no way to feed them, no way to get water to them, but if you can bring the Comfortas the “Comfort Inn,” we could really use the facility on the island. We can dock it very close, and it would be tremendously helpful to the city.

When the Comfort had gotten out of the Chesapeake and was coming up to Earle, New Jersey, I got a call from the skipper of the hospital on board.

The surgically intensive team abandoned ship. Primary care, physical therapy, messmen and general duty corpsmen boarded, and they steamed up to New York.  (Official U.S. Navy photo)

I said, “Okay, pretend this is your new mission. You’re going up to New York to be the team doctor for an international, middle-aged, out-of-shape men’s rugby tournament.”

He said, “I got it.”

So they got to Earle and they had what they called an “abandoned ship drill with duffle bags.” The surgically intensive team abandoned ship. Primary care and physical therapy and messmen and general duty Corpsmen boarded, and they steamed up to New York.

They provided up to 1,000 people a day hot meals, a shower, a berth, and laundry service. So you’d go aboard, they’d take your dirty laundry, feed you, put you to bed, give you a shower, wake you up, give you your clean clothes back, or new clothes, and send you back to work. We took criticism for that. There were people who thought that that was an undignified mission for a war ship of the United States Navy and I shouldn’t have done that.

The Comfort stayed until rescue was over, and then it was recovery, or much less intense, and the Comfort came back home.

Members of the New York Fire Department present honors as they pass the World Trade Center and the National September 11 Memorial aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21) Sept. 8, 2011. (Official U.S. Navy photo)

A year later there was a Baltic exercise where European and East European medical officers, as well as our folks, were supporting Baltic OPs, and there was a reception for one of the princesses of the British Royal family, so I needed to go for protocol purposes.  I went over for this reception and got to review the ship. And after the reception, which was up on the deck, I walked over to where the messmen were and to congratulate them for a nice job.  As we were talking and laughing and I said, “By the way, how many of you were on the Comfort last year?” And most of the hands went up. And this one kid, a 22-year old, kept trying to put his hand up and the others kept slapping him down, good naturedly, but as if saying “you don’t count.” So I said, “Come here. Were you aboard the ship last year?”

He said, “I was on the Comfort in New York, but I wasn’t crew. I was a New York City fireman. After New York I was so impressed that I joined the Navy under the condition that I become a messman assigned to the Comfort.”

Endnotes

(1)   Vice Admiral Michael Cowan, Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy, 2001-2004

(2)   Oral History Session with Vice Adm. Michael Cowan conducted by André B. Sobocinski and Col (ret) Richard Ginn on September 12, 2013.  BUMED Library and Archives.

(3)   Vice Adm. Richard Nelson served as Surgeon General of the Navy from 1997 to 2001.

(4)   From 1987 to 2001, Navy Medicine’s motto was “Standing by to Assist.”

(5)   Flags on the Old BUMED Campus in Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.

(6)   Capt. Charles Blankenship, MC, USN