7 Marines awarded for security operations on COVID-19 hospital ship in NYC


Shortly after two Marines started their security shift on the Navy hospital ship Comfort on April 7, a New York City hospital performed an emergency evacuation and simultaneously sent 10 ambulances of coronavirus patients.

As the Marines on the pier rapidly screened the ambulances and directed traffic, they discovered that the patient in the fourth ambulance had rapidly deteriorating health and a dangerously low oxygen tank.

The two Marines leapt into action, halting all traffic on the pier and pushing the ambulance to the front of the line. It allowed that patient to reach medical aid up to 15 minutes sooner, a Navy report on the incident said.

“You need oxygen to survive. And even just going a couple minutes without oxygen, the human brain starts losing function and having permanent brain damage for life,” Sgt. Austin Loppe said. “So that wasn’t something that myself or any of my Marines were willing to let happen to an American citizen.”

On June 15, seven Marines from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division, were awarded medals for providing security to the Navy hospital ship sent to New York City to provide emergency COVID-19 support.

In late March, the Navy hospital ship Comfort was sent to New York City from Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, with more than 1,100 Navy medical personnel and a company of Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Military Times previously reported.

The ship left New York City a month later only having treated 200 patients. But, despite the low number of patients seen on the ship, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo lauded its service.

“I believe Comfort not only brought comfort but also saved lives,” Cuomo said when the ship departed his state.

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Marine Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Hebner, the Lima Company gunnery sergeant, received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for his part in the operation, according to a statement from the 2nd Marine Division.

The six other Marines received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal: 1st Lt. Gerhard Vanarkel, a platoon commander with the company, Sgt. Austin Loppe, a squad leader, Cpl. Richard Nable, a team leader, Cpl. Hunter Dillan, a team leader, Cpl. Cole Johnson, a team leader, and Lance Cpl. Colton Flach, a rifleman.

Both Loppe and Flach received their medal for their parts in saving the lives of coronavirus patients being transported to the Comfort.

After learning that more ambulances were running low on oxygen the Marines quickly started running the extra oxygen tanks aboard the ship “several hundred meters” down the pier so that they could be distributed to the ambulances in need, the Navy release said.

“To see my Marines awarded, and to receive an award myself, means the world to me,” Vanarkel said in a press release from the 2nd Marine Division.

“These Marines packed up and left on a moment’s notice, all for the sake of helping other Americans when they needed it most,” he added. “This award recognizes their character, selflessness and resiliency.”

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