A contingent of U.S. Marines—including Osprey tiltrotors—will help combat the spread of Ebola in Liberia. The deployment underscores the difficulties—and dangers—international forces and health workers face in West Africa as they scramble to contain the deadly virus.
The Marine force consists of around 100 people along with four V-22 Osprey tiltrotors and two KC-130 Hercules transport planes. The KC-130s are also capable of refueling the unique tiltrotors in mid-air.
The newly arriving troops will be ferrying people and supplies around the under-developed country. “Some of the sites at which we are trying to set up these emergency treatment units are in pretty remote locations, where there are not only no roads, but there’s no other way to get to them sometimes than … on foot,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby explained.
But the Marines could perform other missions, too. American troops building hospices and training health workers could contract the virus and need to be rushed back to the U.S. for urgent care.
“If somebody does contract Ebola and becomes symptomatic, they will be handled … just like you’ve seen on the recent ones who came back on an aircraft that was specially designed to bring them back [to the United States],” Gen. David Rodriguez, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told reporters recently.
“[An infected service member would] go back to one of the centers that is specially designed to handle the Ebola patients right now,” Rodriguez said.
The Ospreys might be one of the few options to rapidly move sickened Americans between hard-to-reach locales and Monrovia’s airport. Phoenix Air’s special air ambulances—which have already flown private citizens back home for treatment—need an actual runway. V-22s don’t.
To be clear, American troops aren’t directly treating Ebola patients. But Navy medical personnel are in contact with Ebola as they test blood at makeshift labs. The Army has also been screening samples at similar facilities in Liberia and throughout the region since at least July.
Early on in the process, technicians inactivate the virus in the samples in order to reduce some of the hazards. But personnel still have to wear fully enclosed suits to protect against the disease.
And while Ebola has killed more than 2,000 people in Liberia, the Pentagon may be worried about other threats, as well. The extra Marines are from a crisis response unit that trains to protect Americans overseas from upheaval—or get them out if things get too dangerous.
“When these people get infected … they are not capable of … a mounted attack or anything,” Rodriguez said of Ebola sufferers. Unfortunately, sick people are only one security problem. There are others.
For instance, a mob overran and looted a quarantine facility in Monrovia’s West Point slum back in August. The club-wielding young men took mattresses strained with infected blood, as patients diagnosed with the deadly disease fled.
The next month, eight people—including aid workers and journalists—were murdered in neighboring Guinea, where Ebola has claimed nearly 800 lives. The perpetrators may have thought the individuals were trying to spread the contagion.
“The incident rate is likely to be correlated to the spread of the virus,” Basile Pissalidis and Lauren Rajczak told War Is Boring. Pissalidis and Rajczak are the Director of Security and Security Coordinator respectively at InterAction, an alliance of U.S. humanitarian NGOs working to stem the spread of the virus in Liberia.
And now the U.N. is particularly worried whether regular Liberians will be able to get food and other necessities as the months-long epidemic strains public institutions and private businesses. Angry and fearful people are a recipe for violence.
“The strain to social and physical infrastructures that would be caused by food scarcities could increase security risks for aid workers,” Pissalidis and Rajczak added.
In a crisis, the Marines could possibly help with security until a company of U.S. Army military police touches down. Even if there aren’t enough troops to actually guard various sites, the force could help rescue people from unruly civilians.
And if a threatening situation does develop, American forces might be the only ones ready to go. Liberian soldiers and police might not be able—or willing—to respond to a riot or similar emergency.
Some troops are deserting after at least eight of their comrades died from Ebola at a Liberian army barracks, according to the country’s Daily Observer newspaper.
Whatever the Marine contingent actually ends up doing, “our service members, wherever they go, they have the ability to defend themselves and protect themselves,” Rodriguez stressed. “NGOs [also] have the ability to mitigate risks though through systematic community engagement and communication,” point out Pissalidis and Rajczak.
If nothing else, American commanders on the ground are probably just happy to have all the help they can get.