WASHINGTON – There already are 231 U.S. military members with boots on the ground in the fight against Ebola in West Africa, a total of 1,400 are imminently being prepared to go, and there will be a maximum, for now, of 3,900 dispatched, according to Department of Defense spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
At a news conference Friday, he also said their responsibilities will command control, logistics, civil affairs and medical help – but he emphasized that their exposure to Ebola will be limited.
Some of the first projects will be building medical response centers and a hospital, hopefully by Oct. 18, and, Kirby confirmed, there already are 231 Navy personnel on the ground in several centers where samples are being tested for the presence of Ebola.
WND had reported one day earlier that the Pentagon is planning to spend at least $1 billion on the effort, and critics were questioning why President Obama was using valuable, highly trained warriors to provide mostly logistical and engineering support for health workers trying to stop the spread of Ebola there.
At Friday’s news conference, those answers really weren’t available.
Kirby earlier had said the troops would be setting up the infrastructure for an operation that will be run by the State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, and the Centers for Disease Control.
He said then the effort would not include U.S. military personnel treating Ebola patients. Instead, their function will be in support of other health-care workers who are the experts in the Ebola treatment process.
WND requests for answers about why U.S. troops are being used in a scene containing a deadly viral disease didn’t generate any responses. He also couldn’t respond to questions about whether other countries could be helping, saying those invitations were up to the government of Liberia.
On Friday, he said those 1,400 soldiers would be moved over to Africa on an as-needed basis, but the early surveys of the needs suggested that up to 3,900 soldiers would be required, and that was what was authorized.
At present, Kirby said, there are 205 U.S. service members in Liberia now, another 26 in neighboring Senegal, although U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel “has approved the potential deployment of up to 4,000 (military personnel). But I want to make one thing real clear, that that’s a potential deployment. That doesn’t mean it is going to get to that number.”
Earlier reports said that some 3,000 had been approved, but given the results of initial assessments, Kirby said the number actually could approach 4,000 U.S. service members from a variety of services.
Kirby pointed out that Ebola testing laboratories manned by personnel from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center were fully operational and that the labs could process about 100 samples a day.
The U.S. Army announced the units will deploy to the region beginning in mid-month and running through November. With the previously announced unit deployments, this will bring the total Army commitment to about 3,200 soldiers.
More than 1,800 soldiers from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, will arrive in Liberia sometime late this month. Other soldiers will deploy from the 101st Sustainment Brigade, the 86th Combat Support Hospital of the 44th Medical Brigade, and a Military Police company from the 16th Military Police Brigade.
These units will provide medical and logistic support, as well as site security, to the Joint Task Force. Soldiers will deploy from other bases as well including, Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Carson, Colorado; Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Eustis, Virginia, and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
“As we continue our support to the broader U.S. government response to the Ebola crisis, I want to emphasize that our operations remain focused on four lines of effort: command and control, logistics support, training, and engineering support,” Kirby said.
Troops going to the region will be monitored before, during and after deployment, Kirby said.
“Before they go, they are … especially going to get trained on Ebola and what the disease is like, what it means, what it does,” Kirby said. “Because, as I said, the troops that we’re sending down there are not health care professionals. They are not doctors, nurses, corpsmen. They are logisticians and engineers.”
Health experts will explain the best way to protect themselves from the disease. They will also explain the symptoms of Ebola.
“While the troops are there, they’re going to be constantly monitored on a regular, frequent basis,” Kirby said.
He did explain the military was the group best organized to handle some of the responsibilities in support of USAID, and others.
Although the goal is to avoid having the soldiers exposed to Ebola, processes were being developed in recognition of that possibility, he said.
Soldiers will have a period of training before they go, and “every precaution” will be taken in the field.
The actual exposure will be highest in the labs where doctors from the Navy already are testing samples, he said.
Frequent testing and monitoring of soldiers will be set up, but he conceded military hospitals have not yet been prepared to cope with that development.
The question of why U.S. troops are being dispatched, instead of contractors or others, has been referenced only in Kirby’s assessment that the military is best organized to handle the work.
“Obviously, a key component of moving our troops anywhere in any situation is to make sure (we) adequately prepare them, train them and equip them for their own personal protection,” Kirby said at the time. “So, we’re doing everything we can to make sure that they’re informed, they’re educated and they’re trained on how to protect themselves from the environment.
“But there’s no – there’s no intent right now for them to have direct contact with patients,” Kirby said.
However, the operative phrase is “right now.”
“We’re clear-eyed about the risk that we’re incurring in standing up this mission down in Liberia and in Africa with this, with this deadly disease,” he said then. “The disease itself is a threat. We understand that. We get paid to deal in risk and to manage that and to mitigate it the best we can.
“It’s difficult in any military operation to eliminate it, and the men and women who sign up and serve in the military understand that when they do,” Kirby added. “The mission right now that General Williams has been assigned is one of engineering and support logistics. And I would say the word ‘support’ means a lot to us. We are supporting USAID and the State Department and also the government of Liberia in this particular case.”
In an interview with Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said, “The military is not trained to go catch Ebola and die. They’re trained to go in and kill the people that want to come back and kill us. The president’s priorities are all mixed up here. All you got to do is shut down traffic in and out of places where there’s high risk of Ebola.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told CNN in an interview Wednesday he’s concerned about what happens when the soldiers get back on a ship.
“Where is disease most transmittable? When you’re in a very close confines on a ship; we all know about cruises and how they get these diarrhea viruses that are transmitted very easily,” he said. “Can you imagine if a whole ship full of our soldiers catch Ebola?”
NBC News reported Thursday American freelance cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, working for the network in Liberia, has tested positive for Ebola and will be flown back to the U.S. for treatment. Mukpo described circumstances that may have led to the spread of the virus. “At one point he was trying to help decontaminate a car,” his mother explained. “He had most of the protective gear on, but he thinks something might have splashed on his body at that point. That’s one possibility, but really, one doesn’t know fully.”
The overall strategy established by the U.N. and governments is to contain the virus where it is endemic and avoid further epidemic outbreaks, according to Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the global charity Wellcome Trust.
“Of more concern is that the virus could become endemic in Western Africa, so unlike big outbreaks like this we could have smaller numbers of cases but circulating continuously,” he said. “This is where we need to focus our efforts and attention – on trying to stop this outbreak before it establishes itself in Western African countries.
More than 8,000 people have contracted the virus in West Africa. More than 3,300 of them have died from it. The Ebola virus already is present in the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. At present, the heaviest outbreaks appear to be in Liberia and Guinea. Nigeria has announced it has been able to contain the virus from spreading.
The military portion of the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak will be led by U.S. Army African Command chief Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams, who will oversee what has been dubbed Operation United Assistance.
Two U.S. Air Force C-17s were dispatched to Liberia loaded with a heavy-duty forklift, a generator and crew of seven military personnel to quickly assess the capacity and payload of the runways at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia.
Already, a 25-bed deployable hospital, supplies and lab training diagnostic equipment and personnel protective equipment have arrived in Monrovia.