The frontline workers battling the coronavirus (COVID-19) have tens of thousands of connections to the softball community. Many players’ families are the frontline doctors, nurses, medical technicians, first responders and serve our country in the military. They are the ongoing heroes in this fight.
This story connects one of the current iconic public images in that fight to the softball community.
As the USNS Comfort arrived in New York Harbor this week, Extra Inning Softball scored an exclusive interview with Randall Rockwood, a former captain of the Comfort, who is the father of Rory Rockwood, a 2022 sophomore slapper catcher that plays for the 16U Bay River Rumble travel team and Nansemond Suffolk Academy (NSA) in Suffolk, Virginia.
Rory has played softball for five years. She played rec ball and travel ball for one season each and then quit playing the sport. The next year Chris Angel, one of her coaches, convinced her to give travel ball another try. According to Rory, “Coach Angel has had the most influence on my softball journey because he challenged me and helped me develop as a player. He also made it fun.” She says her favorite softball athlete is Tennessee’s Aubrey Leach, “she is a slapper and very fast, and so am I!”
Like everyone else in the country, Rory had her NSA school ball season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was very disappointed. We only had two games. We were state champions last season and we had pretty much the same group of girls back again and it looked to be a good year. Our goal was to win a second state championship in a row. I felt very confident and we had all grown to trust each other as a team. It is terrible that the seniors won’t get that chance to win another state championship.”
On her NSA team, Rory is the catcher for 2022 Extra Elite 100 candidate Madison Inscoe. Senior Addy Greene (Virginia Tech commit) joined Inscoe and Rory on a tough NSA squad that was looking to be back-to-back state champs before the pandemic ended their season almost before it began.
Here is a video of the sophomore catcher showcasing her strong arm:
Rory mentioned she is worried about the possibility of the summer season being cancelled. She just joined the Bay River Rumble, an A level regional team in the Norfolk/Hampton area, and is looking forward to this summer. She hasn’t decided if she wants to play in college yet, however.
“Right now, I’m just playing softball and having fun. But I want to develop and grow as a softball player and person,” she says.
Rory maintains a 4.0 GPA and says she’s interested in physical therapy or business as possible majors but is still trying to decide what she wants to study. On the softball front, she has been to camps at Virginia Tech, Randolph Macon and Christopher Newport and is looking forward to other possible school visits once the quarantine is over and life gets back to the new normal.
Rory is dealing with distance learning like many other players across the country. Her school has a combination of homework to be submitted online as well as Zoom classes where they are required to attend online conference meetings during class time. She said there have been pros and cons, but that it has been good for improving time management skills.
She added, “I was home-schooled in middle school, and this is a lot like that. There is a lot more free time, but there is certainly time when you have to study and get your work done.”
Like most players, she misses seeing her friends, teammates and classmates and is trying to deal with the quarantine like everyone else.
“I’m doing some tee work, but being stuck at home is really limiting my ability to train and do a whole lot.”
Rory’s dad also had a pretty sweet gig. Captain Randall Rockwood previously (2010-2013) served as captain of the USNS Comfort, the US Navy’s hospital ship that is currently deployed to New York Harbor to assist with the COVID-19 surge there. He gave a detailed brief of how the ship works and what is on it.
Rory put her own spin on it, “I’ve been on the Comfort and it was really cool. It’s huge! My dad took us on a tour, and we got to see all the medical areas and the entire ship. I didn’t really appreciate or understand what my dad did at the time. I knew he was gone a lot and he drove big ships, but now, understanding the missions, it puts it into perspective. He was helping people and it’s really neat to know my dad was the captain of the Comfort which is in the news and helping Americans right now.”
USNS Comfort and her sister ship, USNS Mercy, deploy on scheduled humanitarian missions for about six months at a time all over the world. Usually the two ships deploy opposite years to that of the other so that one is operating while the other is standing by. This is an unusual situation where both are deployed at the same time.
One thing many people might find surprising is that the Comfort is operated by an entirely civilian crew. While the ship is part of the U.S. Navy, as part of the Military Sealift Command (MSC), it is not captained or maintained by military personnel. The military provides the medical crew and a mission command to guide the mission of the ship, but the ship itself is operated and maintained by civilian mariners.
While deployments are usually at least six months long, the minimum time a crew member may be assigned is four months and they can have up to one month leave depending on seniority. When not deployed, but prepared to depart in five days, the civilian crew is responsible for maintaining and doing drills on the ship.
The Comfort is about the size of a large cruise ship and is almost 900 feet long and over 100 feet wide. It is a fully functioning floating hospital. It houses around 1,300 people when fully staffed on deployment and has 12 operating rooms, three radiology facilities, an isolation ward, 1,000 hospital beds, eighty ICU beds, a CT scanner and room for 5,000 units of blood.
The Comfort has separate dining and living quarters for the civilian crew and the military personnel. All of the civilian officers have private sleeping quarters. The top Navy commanders also get private sleeping quarters. However, the doctors, other military personnel and non-crew civilians have shared sleeping quarters for six or more and have communal bathrooms.
The Comfort also has a helicopter landing deck just behind the bridge of the ship and may embark up to two Navy helicopters. The civilian captain approves all takeoffs and landings on the ship and coordinates with his team to communicate directly with the pilots so the ship may be maneuvered into the best position for the helicopter to make safe landings and takeoffs depending on the wind direction.
The civilian crew is in charge of the deck and logistics loading all supplies onboard the ship for both the civilian and military functions. This includes all the essentials to operate the boat – oils, grease, spare parts, as well as the medical supplies, food and other staples for everyone onboard.
The civilian engineering staff is responsible for keeping the ship functional on everything from the main engines, and enormous generators, to the air conditioning, the plumbing systems and everything in between.
Rockwood added, “The Comfort is fortunate in that while in New York City they have chief engineer Joe Watts, another key civilian merchant marine who has been the chief engineer for well over 10 years. He knows every nut and bolt on the ship.”
THREE COMMANDS, ONE SHIP
When deployed, the Comfort has three separate commands operating on one ship.
The first is the U.S. Merchant Marine led by the captain of the ship and his civilian crew of deck, engine and supply/steward personnel. Deck personnel support watch standing, navigation and safety equipment like boat launching and recovery. Engineers keep the HVAC, engines, electrical power and sewage systems all functioning. Supply/steward crews support provisioning and food service for the civilians. In total there are between 70-75 civilian crew members who deploy with the ship.
The second is the military treatment facility (MTF) personnel. Their command structure is usually led by a Navy Medical Corps captain who is in charge of the hospital and all of the medical activity on the ship. The MTF personnel can be from all service branches, though usually Navy and they staff the hospital and utilize the medical spaces just like any other hospital except it’s floating. During a routine deployment, they may be supplemented by non-governmental organization personnel doing humanitarian projects and even host foreign national medical personnel when they arrive in port.
The third is the mission commander, a Navy line officer captain referred to as the commodore. He and his staff oversee the overall mission when deployed. The commodore works closely with the ship and hospital leadership to ensure Comfort’s various missions are executed efficiently and receive the necessary shoreside support, including public relations.
The three command staffs meet regularly to ensure the objectives of the mission are being met and to address any issues that need to be taken care of. Each operates independently of the other, but it’s challenging at times to have three separate chains of command on a single ship.
MILITARY SEALIFT COMMAND (MSC)
The Comfort is a vessel in the Military Sealift Command (MSC), which is part of the Department of Defense. MSC has more than 50 vessels in its government owned, government operated fleet, including logistics ships for underway supply replenishment, ships to rearm and transport ammunition, fueling ships that refuel underway, special missions ships that can lay/repair cable and the two hospital ships: USNS Comfort, based on the East Coast, and USNS Mercy, based on the West Coast.
Rockwood spent time on a number of other MSC ships during his career at sea including over 17 commands including seagoing tugs, oilers and dry cargo/ammunition ships and said that, “Command of Comfort was not only the most challenging but the most gratifying command I ever had due to the sheer size of the ship, number of embarked personnel, the wonderful humanitarian mission and positive profile.”
RETIRED TO THE NEXT CHAPTER
After 34 years as a mariner, Captain Rockwood retired in 2018 so he wouldn’t miss Rory’s softball tournaments and practices. The State University of New York Maritime College graduate remains in the industry as Vice President of Masters, Mates and Pilots for Federal Employee Membership Group and as an instructor at the Mid Atlantic Maritime Academy, a state of the art maritime training center for those hoping to become mariners and those upgrading their credentials.
His passion, however, remains being there for and being part of Rory’s softball journey.
Kevin Long is a correspondent covering travel teams, high school ball and other assignments for Extra Inning Softball. He can be reached at email@example.com, www.twitter.com/KLEXINSB, and www.facebook.com/KLONG50extrainningsoftball