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1,400 US troops to Liberia: building hospitals, not treating Ebola patients

After announcement of first Ebola case in US, Pentagon aims to tamp down fears that US troops are at risk in Liberia, the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic in Africa. US troops are getting trained on 'personal protective equipment.'

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People read newspaper headlines commenting on President Obama's announcement on sending troops to fight the Ebola virus in Monrovia, Liberia, on Sept. 17, 2014. The US is planning on delivering 17 treatment centers with 100 beds each to Liberia, which has been hardest hit by the outbreak.

Abbas Dulleh/AP

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The Pentagon announced this week that it will be sending some 1,400 US troops to Liberia to support “the US government’s overall response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.”

This was happening just as the Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first case of Ebola in the United States, prompting US military officials to do their best to tamp down fears that US soldiers could be at risk, too.

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“All the troops that are going are getting trained on personal protective equipment and on the disease itself,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said in a briefing Tuesday.

One reporter wanted to know whether this “personal protective equipment” would include weapons.

“There’s not a security issue,” Rear Admiral Kirby said. “There’s no intent to put armed troops down there.”

Deploying soldiers have a “very, very low” risk of contracting Ebola, Lt. Col. Brian DeSantis, the 101st Airborne Division’s spokesman, told the Military Times. “If anything, there are other health risks we’re more concerned about, and we’ll mitigate those.”

This includes malaria, which takes more than 600,000 lives, of mostly African children, every year, according to the World Health Organization, which estimates that roughly 3,000 people have died from Ebola during the latest outbreak.

Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, called the mission his troops were being sent to do “critical.”

Roughly half of the troops, some 700, will come from the 101st, while the rest will be pulled from Army units throughout the force. They will be supervising the preliminary construction of Ebola treatment units – which will eventually include 17 hospital facilities with 100 beds each – first conducting site surveys, and providing engineering expertise, in addition to jobs such as clearing and leveling ground to prepare for hospitals to be built, Pentagon officials said. 

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That’s why the bulk of soldiers headed to Liberia have particular skills in this field.

“It would make sense that we would want combat engineers,” Kirby said.

He stressed, too, that US military personnel “are not and will not be providing direct care to Ebola patients.”

The next group of US troops to be deployed to Liberia will be the ones to actually build the hospitals. “They’ll come in waves.”

The numbers of American soldiers detailed to the mission “could go higher than 3,000 troops, eventually,” he added.

Last week, the Department of Defense requested an additional $500 million in overseas contingency funds to “provide urgent humanitarian assistance to fight Ebola,” on top of a previous $500 million request, for a total of $1 billion in Ebola-response efforts.

The initial effort to set up treatment units is expected to take about six months, but “we would certainly stay there as long as required,” Kirby said. “It could very well go beyond that.”