The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the new U.S. military force that Obama is deploying to fight Ebola

Liberian Red Cross health workers wearing protective suits arrive to carry a body of a victim of the Ebola virus on Sept. 12 in a district of Monrovia. Liberia has been hit hard by the Ebola epidemic, the worst in history, which has killed more than 2,400 people since it erupted earlier this year, according to World Health Organization. AFP PHOTO / ZOOM DOSSOZOOM DOSSO/AFP/Getty Images

As President Obama framed the ongoing Ebola epidemic in western Africa as a potential threat to global security, a two-star Army general and his staff were already on the ground in Liberia, preparing for a mission that is expected to include about 3,000 service members and has no end in sight.

Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the commander of U.S. Army Africa, will coordinate the response, Operation United Assistance, from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. It will require an “air bridge” to get health workers and medical supplies to areas that are affected, and a staging area in Senegal to distribute personnel and aid on the ground more quickly, Obama said.

“If the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected, with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us,” Obama said. “So this is an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security — it’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic. That has profound effects on all of us, even if we are not directly contracting the disease.”

The president compared the military operation to the Pentagon’s response following the catastrophic January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. That mission, known as Operation Unified Response, included 22,000 U.S. troops, including 7,000 based on land, and spanned more than five months, the Defense Department said.

Williams will lead a force that will likely include everything from medical experts to truck drivers, as the military tackles the complicated logistics and engineering effort required for the mission. Trained as an artillery officer, he previously served as a deputy chief of staff for U.S. Army Europe.

As The Washington Post reported Tuesday morning, the effort could cost up to $750 million in the next six months. The military is responding in a region where the World Health Organization estimates that the total number of likely or confirmed Ebola cases as of Sept. 7 was 4,366, including 2,218 deaths.

A defense official declined Tuesday to specify which units could deploy.

“We are still in the planning process to determine resources and assets needed, and are looking across the entire military to source mission requirements,” a defense official told Checkpoint on Tuesday afternoon. “Specific units have not been identified at this time.”

Broadly, however, the official said the Defense Department personnel involved are likely to include the following:

Medical personnel
The new operation will need medical personnel who are capable of “supporting health care provider training,” the defense official said, meaning they will train local medical personnel to treat Ebola patients without providing direct care themselves. Obama said a new training site will prepare thousands of health works to “effectively and safely care for more patients.”

Organizations like the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases have investigated Ebola for years, and will likely have a hand in the response. The institute, based at Fort Detrick, Md., already has sent several of its experts to Africa this year, officials said. It has worked in the region since 2006, when it investigated an outbreak of another disease, Lassa fever, in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Researchers with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency also have tracked Ebola. They had a hand in developing the experimental ZMapp Ebola treatment that first received widespread attention in August, after two American health workers in Africa received it.

Engineers to construct “Ebola Treatment Units”
The U.S. military has a broad, multi-service force of engineers who are trained to build facilities quickly. As The Post reported Tuesday, they will be called on to set up 17 treatment centers in Liberia, each with 100 beds.

Transportation personnel to support an “intermediate staging base”
Obama alluded to this by referencing an “air bridge.” He did not say where the staging area in Senegal will be, but the country’s capital, Dakar, is about 1,000 miles from Monrovia, where U.S. operations will be coordinated. Moving equipment around will likely require both planes and helicopters, along with a fleet of vehicles and the personnel to operate them all.

“Our forces are going to bring their expertise in command and control, in logistics, in engineering,” Obama said. “And our Department of Defense is better at that, our Armed Services are better at that than any organization on Earth.”

Administrators in Monrovia to oversee it all
Any large military operation has a central headquarters. In this one, Williams will work from a joint operations center in Monrovia.

To coordinate the response, the general will likely be assisted by a staff with dozens, if not hundreds, of personnel. They’ll be called upon to do everything from tracking vehicles as they come and go to making sure there is enough food, water and supplies on hand.


UPDATE: This post has been altered to include the correct name for the U.S. Ebola mission.