WASHINGTON – As 1,400 U.S. soldiers prepare to head to Liberia this month, critics are still wondering why President Obama is using his valuable, highly trained warfighters to provide mostly logistical and engineering support for health workers trying to stop the spread of Ebola.
According to Department of Defense officials, the Pentagon is planning to spend at least $1 billion on the effort and send a total of 3,000 military personnel to the center of the unprecedented outbreak.
Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said the troops will set up the infrastructure for an operation that will be run by the State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Kirby made clear at a Sept. 19 press conference that the effort will 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.
A WND request to the DOD for a response to questions such as why U.S. troops are being used for support and engineering in a place that will subject them to a deadly viral disease went unanswered.
Kirby said Sept. 19 the U.S. troops would not be a combat force as such, although he didn’t rule out that some would carry weapons in setting up headquarters in Liberia.
“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. “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. “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.”
A Department of Defense spokeswoman insisted last week the department will make “every effort to ensure that U.S. personnel on the ground and all health care workers” are protected.
But 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 an American freelance cameraman working for the network in Liberia has tested positive for Ebola and will be flown back to the U.S. for treatment.
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.
He currently has a 12-person assessment team on the ground in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, conducting on-the-ground planning and site surveys to construct Ebola treatment units in Liberia.
“The assessment team is also evaluating what our deployed U.S. military personnel will need in terms of support infrastructure to sustain the operations for up to six months or however long U.S. military assistance is required,” Kirby said.
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.
The airport will be the central point through which assistance from the U.S. and other countries will flow.
In addition, 45 U.S. military personnel are to set up Williams’ command headquarters.
Already, a 25-bed deployable hospital, supplies and lab training diagnostic equipment and personnel protective equipment have arrived in Monrovia.
‘Not a military-led operation’
How U.S. troops will avoid any contact with Ebola patients is something Kirby said Williams will need to figure out. The DOD spokesman said troops will be issued hazardous gear to wear even in their support role.
“This is not a military-led operation. And so the mission itself as it’s defined is limited to those – those areas, and not direct medical care of patients. I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what might or could change over time,” Kirby said.
“We are – we have unique capabilities. We try to stay as ready and prepared across those capabilities as we can. And if there should be a need in the future to change the mission, to modify it somewhat, then we’ll have that discussion. But there’s no discussion about that right now.”
So far, the spread of Ebola has been through direct exposure to bodily fluids of affected individuals, although the chief of the United Nations’ Ebola mission, Anthony Banbury, said there is a possibility that the Ebola virus could mutate and become airborne.
“The longer it moves around in human hosts in the virulent melting pot that is West Africa, the more chances increase that it could mutate,” he told the London Daily Telegraph. “It is a nightmare scenario that it could become airborne, and unlikely, but it can’t be rule out.”
Kirby said that Williams will be “working through all the particulars.”
He emphasized the need to remember what the mission is.
“The mission is to do some training, to build these units and do some logistics, some transports, the movement of materiel. It is not to treat,” he said. “General Williams understand those parameters. He knows what his mission is. And he’ll make sure that the troops are property trained themselves and have the – the protective equipment that they will need. But there’s no intention right now that they will be interacting with patients or in areas where they would necessarily come into contact with patients.”