A pair of Army Reserve units from Maryland are being mobilized to aid U.S. efforts to tackle the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, officials said Monday, as the Pentagon prepares to extend its humanitarian mission into next year.
The military has deployed about 2,200 troops since September to support relief efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The new round of mobilizations — which total 2,100 Reservists and National Guardsmen nationwide — indicate that the military's battle against Ebola could stretch well into 2015. Officials have not laid out a timeline or end date for U.S. involvement.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the military mission, if successful, could be over in six months. More than 14,000 people have been infected with Ebola in the current outbreak, and about 5,100 have died, according to the World Health Organization.
U.S. officials said last week that the rate of new cases appears to have decreased, but 45 new infections a day were still being detected in Liberia.
On Monday, officials announced plans to mobilize 16 Reserve and National Guard units.
About 55 Reservists from the 313th Movement Control Battalion, based in Baltimore, are scheduled to travel to Senegal and Liberia in the spring. Another 68 soldiers from the Rockville-based 398th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion are also scheduled to deploy.
Their deployments could last six months. The members, who specialize in logistics and shipping, are not expected to come into contact with Ebola patients. But like all U.S. troops, they would be subject to a 21-day quarantine after leaving Africa.
Logistics and shipping are especially important in the current mission, Thomas A. Dempsey said, because it involves sending thousands of tons of material and establishing the infrastructure to support medical care.
"That's what the military does," said Dempsey, a professor with the Defense Department's Africa Center for Strategic Studies. He said he was speaking for himself, not for the Defense Department.
Soldiers from the 1st Area Medical Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground are working in Liberia to speed up the detection of Ebola infections.
That unit, which deployed this fall, had less than a month to get ready. The Pentagon is giving the Reservists more notice.
Training takes between two weeks and a month, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Crosson said, but mobilization notices are going out now so the Reservists can plan with their employers and families to be deployed next year.
"It's a heads-up," Crosson said.
Reservists and Guardsmen are being mobilized now so the military can deploy fresh troops next spring, Crosson said. Depending on how the battle against Ebola goes over the winter, he said, deployments could be shortened or fewer troops could be deployed.
The soldiers are to receive special safety instruction to help guard against Ebola, malaria and other medical concerns, the Pentagon said. Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the commander of the operation, said last week that no U.S. troops had displayed symptoms of Ebola during the deployment. He credited the quality of the training and the controlled nature of their work.
"You won't see soldiers roaming all over Liberia," he said. "They go places where there's a mission, and we just make sure that we're following all those protocols."
U.S. forces are not providing direct medical care to patients with Ebola.
Pentagon officials say they're optimistic at the progress against Ebola. Officials said last week they had scaled back plans for deployments from 4,000 soldiers to 3,000 after realizing that USAID had made better-than-expected progress.
But Deborah R. Malac, the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, cautioned that there was still much to be done.
"We are not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination," she said. "We need more treatment units. We need more personnel to help treat patients. And so we still have a long way to go in this fight."
Dempsey said that when a country's regular public-health infrastructure is pushed to the brink of collapse, the U.S. military has the skills to start putting things back together.
"At the front end, the military response is going to be particularly critical," he said.
U.S. troops are working to set up 17 Ebola treatment units. Two have been completed, Volesky said, and three others are expected to come online by the end of the month. The rest are to be finished before the new year.
Dempsey said the mission has demonstrated how public-health problems are closely tied to national security.
Hagel drew that connection himself on Monday. He traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky., to thank troops there for their work against the disease.
"The challenges and threats that face our country in the world today are not just from Islamic fundamentalists or from terrorists," he said, "but from health diseases and pandemic health threats that threaten the world."