One of the military’s most heavily deployed Army divisions since 9/11 is prepping for a mission where flack jackets will do very little and rubber gloves save lives. The 101st Airborne leaves for Liberia over the next few weeks. And soldiers say in some ways, Ebola is a more intimidating enemy than insurgents.
“I mean, it’s nice that we’re not worried about getting shot at. But the threat is everywhere now,” says Spec. Cody Adams, an MP who got back from Afghanistan a year ago.
On Thursday, Adams spent the afternoon learning about decontamination protocols and how to don protective equipment, starting with three layers of latex gloves. One soldier going through the training said he could break down a rifle and put it back together way faster than he could squeeze into a gas mask, rubber boots and Tyvek suit.
Before going to Iraq or Afghanistan, these soldiers would be clearing buildings or holding mock maneuvers, not circling up in a gymnasium to practice the safe way to remove contaminated clothing.
While Ebola seems less daunting than flying bullets, Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Maddox says there’s so much that’s unknown. After deploying five times to war zones, building hospitals to battle a deadly virus outbreak is new territory.
“Are we all scared? Yeah,” Maddox says. “We’re going into an environment that’s a little bit hostile to somebody who is not from there. Hell, it’s hostile to the people that are from there. So yeah, there’s a bit of fear.”
The pre-deployment briefings don’t exactly ease those anxieties.
“If you’re unfortunate enough to have somebody sneeze directly into your eyeball, you could get [Ebola],” Capt. Tyler Mark said to bleachers full of troops in camouflage, clicking through a slide presentation about the signs and symptoms.
Unlike in a war zone, Mark tells soldiers that hiding a sickness could be hazardous to everyone.
“Nobody wants to be a sick-call ranger, right?” Mark asks. “That is the wrong attitude to have in this environment.”
Rush To Deploy
The entire pre-deployment schedule has been compressed. Before going to combat in recent years, soldiers would get some downtime to be with their families. But these troops only found out they’d deploy in the last month. Sgt. Luc Jiminez didn’t know she was going until this week. She’s deployed before, but now she’s a new mother with a two-month old baby.
“Sucks,” Jiminez says. “Just finding out today, possibly going to deploy. Wow.”
Soldiers say there haven’t been quite as many volunteers to fill slots for this mission. There are a number of reasons, but as a very practical matter, it’s unclear whether they will get hazard pay or get their paychecks tax-free as they do when deploying to the Middle East. That can nearly double a soldier’s take-home pay.
And they will be roughing it. Tents and bug nets. Army planner Alex Willard says it’s yet to be determined where all the camps will go, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, where bases had many comforts from home.
“We’d have the green beans, which is the Army equivalent of a Starbucks. We’d have Pizza Hut and Burger King,” Willard says. “I think this will be the closest thing to an expeditionary army we’ve had in 50 years, easily.”
Willard says he would never have guessed he’d be building hospitals during a deadly Ebola outbreak during his Army career.
But not everyone is freaked out by Ebola by comparison to RPGs and roadside bombs.
“Nope,” Lt. Col Nik Guran says. “I don’t have to worry about IEDs. It’s just that simple.”
Ebola may also be an unseen, but Guran says he’s confident it’s a killer that can be stopped, even if that does mean squeezing into three pairs of rubber gloves.