For the past three months, the crew of the dock landing ship Fort McHenry has been stuck at sea, avoiding port because of an outbreak of disease.
But Navy officials bristle at the mention of a “quarantine.”
They point out that only 25 of more than 700 sailors and Marines have been diagnosed with viral parotitis, an infection that triggers symptoms similar to mumps, with fever, dehydration and chills reported in about 3.5 percent of the service members on board the Florida-based warship.
Instead, they say that “Fort McHenry’s operational schedule has been modified while the ship’s medical team monitors crew health,” according to a prepared statement by the 5th Fleet that was recirculated by the Navy’s Chief of Information Office at the Pentagon.
The release doesn’t detail how Fort McHenry’s schedule has been modified and sets no deadline for when the crew will be cleared to make a port call but indicated that “out of an abundance of caution” personnel have vaccinated all those on board with "measles, mumps and rubella booster vaccinations.”
Navy spokesman Lt. Clint Ramsden added that at no time has the illness jeopardized the ability of the warship to perform its missions in some of the world’s most volatile waterways.
Fort McHenry is currently plying the Arabian Sea.
Officials say that the first case of the illness was reported on Dec. 22, 10 days after the McHenry left Mayport to join the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group in the Atlantic Ocean.
The ARG is comprised of the Norfolk-based amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, the landing platform dock Arlington, embarked elements of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and the McHenry.
Sailors and Marines on the Fort McHenry with symptoms of the virus were “quarantined and treated in the ship’s medical facilities" while crews “thoroughly cleaned and disinfected” affected living and work spaces, according to the 5th Fleet statement.
By Wednesday, 24 of the 25 patients had returned to duty; no lives were threatened by the outbreak; no new cases have been reported since Saturday and “all are expected to make a full recovery,” the statement indicated.
Fort McHenry’s last port call was in the Romanian city of Constanta. The warship pulled into the Black Sea port on Jan. 7, the first U.S. warship to visit the region since the Russians seized three Ukrainian gunboats on Nov. 25 in the Kerch Strait.
But by Jan. 15, the Whidbey Island-class amphib was transiting the Suez Canal.
And that appears to be the closest it has been to land ever since.
Over the past three months, it’s patrolled the Persian Gulf alongside the guided-missile destroyer Chung Hoon; conducted a Feb. 19 burial-at-sea ceremony in the Gulf of Oman for 28 deceased service members and two military spouses; and was resupplied with fuel, food and other essentials by both helicopters and the fleet oiler John Lenthall, according to a steady stream of military press releases.
Fort McHenry’s crew even completed a Feb. 12 “Passex” in the Northern Arabian Sea with a pair of Egyptian vessels.
That involved pulling alongside the guided-missile frigate Alexandria and the Ambassador III-class missile boat Soliman Ezzat and sailing together in a close formation so that the watch teams on all three vessels could train in maneuvering and communicating, according to a 22nd MEU press release.
But there’s no indication in the Marine records that the crews ever left their vessels to greet each other.
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.