A team of 32 soldiers from D Company, 82nd Civil Affairs Battalion has left the West African nation of Liberia, and all but two have returned to Fort Stewart.
The Stewart soldiers were among more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers sent to West Africa to help fight the spread of the Ebola virus.
Maj. Kyle Upshaw said his team’s primary mission was to coordinate communication among the U.S. Agency for International Development, other military units and United Nations support agencies.
“To be there at the height of an epidemic was really unique,” Upshaw said. “For my soldiers to be a part of a large force like that was fascinating. … We trained for it. We were prepared. I think what we didn’t expect to see was, there wasn’t any mass hysteria like you were seeing in the news.”
Upshaw said he also was a little surprised that his team was restricted in its contact with local Liberians. Typically, he said, civil-affairs soldiers work directly with the local people. In this deployment, however, their contact was limited to government officials, military and medical personnel.
He praised the concerted effort by the U.S. military and support agencies with Liberian and U.N. forces and agencies, which he attributed to bringing the number of reported Ebola cases down from 40-50 a week to two a week.
Staff Sgt. Chase Duke, a civil engineer, said his team worked with Task Force Scientist, which set up and ran the laboratories where suspected Ebola cultures were examined. He said the soldiers helped the task force set up the labs but mostly served as “conduits” between the task force commander and local governments, helping them select lab locations.
“We also talked to them about setting their populations at ease, that there wasn’t going to be any source of contamination from the labs,” said Duke, who previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an infantryman. “What was really interesting (about this deployment) was being on the humanitarian side as opposed to the combat side.
“It was interesting to see a country that really wanted us to be there and help them. Everywhere we went, the people were welcoming. … This is just my opinion, but I think once they saw the Ospreys and Blackhawks flying over, the people took it serious. They understood, like, ‘Man, we need to do what they’re telling us to do. The United States Army is here.’”
Duke said he was pleased the Liberians speak English but was somewhat taken aback on seeing their abject poverty.
Spc. Kevin Mims said his role as medic for a four-man team was made easier because they mostly remained on the Forward Operating Base, which had other, more-sophisticated medical support. His job of taking care of his soldiers was limited to checking their temperature twice a day and ensuring each soldier took his malarone, which is used to prevent malaria.
Because they had very limited access to Liberian people, he said the soldiers were at a greater risk for malaria than Ebola. Mosquito nets were required equipment in their sleeping quarters.
“It was really interesting being part of something that was worldwide, something everybody knew about and focused on,” Mims said. “It was a really cool experience.”
He said this was his first deployment and admitted he couldn’t compare it to anything. However, he was grateful that his unit reassured his pregnant wife about what he was doing.
“The battalion and company did a very good job briefing not just us, but our spouses and families, about what to expect,” he said. “They were made aware what we were going into … and that we weren’t doing any patient treatment.”
Upshaw said he and 29 other soldiers first arrived on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where they stayed in a controlled monitoring facility for 21 days, the typical time it takes for the Ebola virus to show symptoms. They were not allowed to leave the facility, and no one was allowed to come in to see them, he said.
Upshaw said the last two soldiers from his team currently are at Fort Bliss, Texas, beginning their controlled monitoring period.