WASHINGTON – At Fort Campbell in Kentucky, spouses of U.S. soldiers headed to Liberia seem to be lingering just a bit longer than usual after predeployment briefings, hungry for information about Ebola.
For these families, the virus is raising a different kind of anxiety than the one they have weathered during 13 years of ground war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They want to know how the military can keep soldiers safe from the epidemic, a new addition to the Army’s long list of threats.
“Ebola is a different problem set that the division hasn’t (faced) before,” said Maj. Gen.Gary Volesky, who will soon head to Liberia along with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division.
There are already more than 350 U.S. troops on the ground in West Africa, mostly in Liberia, including a handful from the 101st. That number is set to grow exponentially in the coming weeks as the military races to expand Liberia’s infrastructure so it can battle Ebola.
The military has already stood up a headquarters in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and hopes to have a 25-bed field hospital up and running by the middle of this month. It also aims to quickly build up to 17 Ebola treatment units.
Volesky said he has seen more of what he called “stay behind dialogue” after these predeployment briefings, something he encourages.
The message at Fort Campbell and at American military bases elsewhere is that the threat from Ebola is manageable. With the right precautions, the risk is low. U.S. soldiers certainly will not be treating sick Liberians and, if all goes according to plan, they will not interact with them either.
But there is still concern among military families. That is something U.S. forces on the ground say they are wrestling with, even as they report feeling relatively safe from infection.
“I have two kids . . . Of course they’re worrying about their dad,” Lt. Col. Scott Sendmeyer, the chief engineer now in Monrovia, said in a phone interview.
“At the same time, I’ve shared the training that I’ve received with my family . . . That’s the way I (relieve) them of their fears.”
The hemorrhagic fever, which has no proven cure, has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa since an outbreak that began in March. More than half the dead have been in Liberia, where the health care system is still reeling from a devastating 1989-2003 civil war.
The risks of failing to contain Ebola in West Africa have come into sharp focus in the United States after the first patient diagnosed with the disease on U.S. soil, Thomas Eric Duncan, died on Wednesday.
As the Ebola threat evolves, the Pentagon has acknowledged the size and duration of the mission in West Africa could too. Deployments might even top the current projection of nearly 4,000, an increase from an earlier estimate of around 3,000.
To operate safely in Monrovia and beyond, the army is giving soldiers safety training, including a course for 150 soldiers on Thursday at Fort Campbell.
The group of soldiers carefully listened to instructors from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, who spelled out the dangers of Ebola, which kills nearly half of the people it infects.
Captain Alex Willard, who was undergoing the training, said the West Africa mission was far different from the kinds of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that many in the 101st “probably are more comfortable with.”