A team of scientists based at Aberdeen Proving Ground has in the past conducted lab work to protect Army soldiers from chemical and biological weapons, harmful pollution — even insect infestations. But its next deployment isn't in a traditional war zone.
The 1st Area Medical Laboratory will leave next week for Liberia, where it will spend up to the next year testing blood samples for the Ebola virus.
The lab's commander, Col. Patrick Garman, is used to assuring families the soldiers would be safe while on deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the message wasn't much different Monday as he pledged to protect them from the virus that continues to spread across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
"It will be tested the same way we would treat a warfare agent," Garman said of the blood samples. "We train for this all year round. With that comes safety."
The unit will land in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, as the United States is stepping up aid to stem the outbreak. President Barack Obama signed an executive order this month authorizing use of military reservists in the aid work.
The lab is working as part of Operation United Assistance, a mission of the U.S. Agency for International Development, better known as USAID, with support from the Army and the U.S. Africa Command, which oversees military operations in Africa.
The operation has established a headquarters in Monrovia, which will include a 25-bed hospital and multiple labs for Ebola testing. So far, 1,500 samples have been tested in three labs that provide 24-hour turnaround on Ebola tests.
Twenty-two soldiers from the Aberdeen unit will add to those efforts. They will split into four smaller lab teams to be deployed in areas around the region, Garman said.
The hope is that by processing more samples more quickly, the unit will be able to help identify areas where the virus is spreading more quickly than others, directing medical teams on where they should focus, he said.
So far, about 700 U.S. military personnel are deployed in West Africa, most of them in Liberia. That number is expected to grow to more than 3,900 in the coming weeks, according to the Africa Command.
The Aberdeen lab last deployed in 2010 to Afghanistan. It has spent the past several weeks preparing for a different sort of mission in Liberia, with help from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick.
Given that they are used to preparing for the possibility of handling deadly pathogens like anthrax or smallpox, Garman said the soldiers are ready to respond to the Ebola outbreak safely.
But the Army has acknowledged the risk to its soldiers — officials said Monday they had started isolating soldiers returning from an Ebola response mission in West Africa, even though they showed no symptoms of infection and were not believed to have been exposed to the virus.
While the Aberdeen unit won't be dealing directly with Ebola patients, they remain at risk given that the virus is spread through bodily fluids, including blood. A physician volunteering in Sierra Leone was flown to the National Institutes of Health this month after being stuck by a needle, exposing him to the virus. He did not become ill and was released.
Reuters contributed to this article.