National Security Writer
FORT CAMPBELL, Kentucky — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday there are encouraging signs of progress against the Ebola virus in West Africa, and he said the U.S. military can take some credit for containing it.
Hagel told a group of 101st Airborne Division soldiers Monday that it is too early to say when the U.S. military’s Ebola mission in Liberia and Senegal will be finished.
“We’re not at the end yet,” he said.
Hagel toured the pre-deployment training that is given to soldiers before they go to West Africa. The soldiers are providing logistics and other support there but are not in direct contact with people infected with the virus. Nevertheless, soldiers are required to undergo 21 days of quarantine upon their return.
One soldier who has completed his training for deployment to Liberia, Sgt. Matthew Bartlett, told reporters his wife and children are “nervous, apprehensive” about him going.
A veteran of two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, Bartlett, 31, from Goldsboro, North Carolina, said he considers the Ebola mission less stressful by comparison.
“There is no one shooting back at us,” he said.
Brig Gen. Mark Stammer, the 101st Airborne’s deputy commanding general for operations, said spouses of troops deployed in Liberia are keenly focused on the issue of monitoring the soldiers after they return home to ensure they are symptom-free, but said “they understand perfectly why that is” necessary.
There currently are about 2,200 U.S. military members in Liberia and Senegal as part of the international response mission. About half of them are from Fort Campbell, he said. That number will rise to about 2,899 by December, but is well below the original plan to deploy up to 4,000 troops to do logistical and security support for medical teams fighting the virus that has killed thousands in West Africa. Recently, the numbers of new infections has begun to drop.
“There are some positive trend lines with Ebola in West Africa,” Hagel said, adding that it’s too early to say what the future holds for the military’s role there.
Hagel alluded to questions that have arisen about why U.S. troops are needed for such an unusual mission.
“The question is obvious: What is our military doing involved in a mission like Ebola?” he said. The answer, he said, is that the world faces an increasingly diverse set of threats, and pandemic diseases are among them.