Navy’s Haiti mission life lesson for ex-Sugar ‘Cane

vmannix@bradenton.comMarch 9, 2010 

Jessica Baldwin was supposed to be a bridesmaid in a February wedding for one of her former Manatee High School Sugar ’Cane teammates.

She had a dress paid for and everything.

Then duty called.

Baldwin, who has been in the U.S. Navy for 3 1/2 years, was deployed after the catastrophic Haiti earthquake to the U.S.N.S. Comfort, a 1,000-bed hospital ship that’s been in Port-au-Prince since Jan. 20.

“I was disappointed I couldn’t make the wedding, but this is my job,” Baldwin said from the ship Monday. “There has been a real need here, so it has been a worthwhile experience.”

Before going to sea, the 2006 MHS grad had been on shore command at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. Baldwin’s tasks have ranged from helping Haitian patients aboard, to working in the radio department, to doing laundry.

“It’s go-go-go. Every day is structured,” the 21-year-old said. “I don’t get to call home as much as I’d like, but I’ve adjusted to it.”

Baldwin’s biggest adjustment has been being away from her son from a brief marriage. Aiden is 2 and stays with her mother, Maria, in Bradenton.

“I miss him and my family, but I know Mom’s doing a wonderful job caring for him,” she said.

Maria Baldwin, a buyer for Bealls, is enjoying being a grandmother.

“It’s given me the chance to know Aiden and develop a bond with him,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d only get to see him every few months.

“I was a young mother myself, so this time I’m more hands on than I was when Jessica was his age.”

Mother and daughter communicate mostly by e-mail, because phone calls are infrequent and the connections spotty.

“She wants to hear about him,” Maria Baldwin said. “She’s still a mother even though she’s miles away. ‘Mom, be sure to do this. Mom, be sure to do that ... ’

“This experience has made her grow up, be more independent, more self-reliant. Her priorities have definitely changed — for the better.”

Jessica Baldwin agreed.

“I’ve definitely matured,” she said. “In high school, you worried about being pretty and things like that. Now, you realize people are depending on you. You have responsibility.”

Almost two months after the Haiti earthquake, the pace aboard the hospital ship has slowed.

Baldwin said the last Haitian patient was just discharged.

The U.S.S. Comfort might not be needed in Haiti much longer.

Likewise, she’s pondering her future in the Navy.

Re-enlistment is at least a year away and she intends to go to college.

“I’ve got time to think about it, but the Navy’s definitely done a lot for me,” Baldwin said. “It’s given me a step up on what I want to do with my life.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, Fla. 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com.

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