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Troops ready to help fight Ebola
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An 82nd Civil Affairs Battalion soldier tightens the hood on his personal protective equipment as part of training to prepare his unit for deployment to Liberia to assist in the fight against Ebola. - photo by Courtesy Photo

This weekend, 32 soldiers assigned to the 82nd Civil Affairs Battalion will deploy to the West African country of Liberia.

Maj. Kyle L. Upshaw, the soldiers’ company commander, said his soldiers have been trained and educated about the Ebola virus and the risks involved.They’ve also been trained in techniques for properly putting on and removing personal protective equipment, he said.

Upshaw said he and his soldiers will have no contact with Ebola patients or treatment facilities but will serve as communication liaisons between the Army and other military organizations as well as the United State Agency for International Development, the Department of State and other U.S. and international government organizations.

“As a civil-affairs unit, we’re going to be there providing support to the U.S. Agency for International Development,” Upshaw said. “They’re actually what’s called the lead federal agency. … We’re sort of a conduit between agencies … a lot of those agencies aren’t familiar with the military lingo, some of the terms and acronyms that we use, so we’re going to provide smooth communication (and) integrate our efforts into that matrix.”

He said the mission does involve building Ebola-treatment units but not the physical labor expected of an engineer. Instead, they’ll serve as liaisons between those who will be constructing the units. He said his unit does include medical personnel but added they’re not going there to treat Ebola patients. They’ll be there to provide medical support for American personnel only, he said.

Even though they won’t personally administer care, Upshaw said they will be there in the middle of ongoing treatment of patients who have the deadly virus.

“I’m very confident,” he said. “My soldiers are well-trained. They’re disciplined. They understand the task at hand. And yes, there are evident risks. Clearly, Ebola is serious. We don’t take it lightly, but again, I’m confident in the training we’ve received. … We’re ready to conduct whatever mission our government, our military assigns us.”

Although he previously has worked other humanitarian missions in Africa, he’s never worked on an epidemic mission before. He said the 82nd Civil Affairs Battalion regionally is aligned to work in Africa, and a lot of his soldiers have participated in other missions in Africa. He said his soldiers are excited about the opportunity to complete a mission like this in Africa.

Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Joe Malizia said the unit became aware they might be deployed around the middle of September. With that notice, they immediately began training ane educating their soldiers about Ebola, its risks and how to protect themselves from it. That training even included a trip to the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, he said. He witnessed the training and believes his soldiers have confidence in their training as well as their protective equipment.

Malizia said the duration of the mission is undetermined at this time, though up to eight months is expected. He said his troops are ready to stay as long as it takes. His battalion already has civil-affairs teams deployed in two countries in Africa, although their classified missions are not connected with this new mission. When asked, he said it still is undermined whether his soldiers will have to go through a 21-day quarantine when they return from their mission.

The battalion surgeon, Capt. Dr. Elisabeth Hesse, said she coordinated and conducted much of the training the soldiers received on the disease and precautions they’ll have to take.

“We did a session specifically on Ebola virus and other viral-hematologic diseases that are found in West Africa and how to protect themselves,” Hesse said. “We spent a lot of time discussing the risks that come with contact with body fluids and the fact that you can’t get it from the air and you can’t get it from the water. The best thing to do is avoid contact with infected personnel and blood and body fluids that might be infected.”

She said previous Ebola virus outbreaks have been in more remote, isolated areas, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and South Sudan. Hesse said this is the first time the Ebola virus has been in West Africa, where there are other diseases with initial symptoms similar to Ebola.

She said at the beginning of the outbreak, there was confusion about what they were dealing with. By the time they realized it was Ebola, it had spread into densely populated areas and was declared “uncontrollable.”

“This deployment is different than most deployments our soldiers have been through,” she said. “I think that the important thing is they have been trained and … I trust in their training completely.”

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