During a visit to Kentucky’s Fort Campbell on Monday, Pentagon Chief Chuck Hagel told soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division that they have made a “huge difference” in containing the lethal Ebola virus in West Africa, and he categorized the disease as serious a threat to the U.S. as terrorism.
“What you all have been responsible for so far has made a huge difference … in containing Ebola,” Hagel told troops from the legendary 101st Airborne Division, which is based at Fort Campbell.
He credited the troops with providing logistics, construction capabilities, and training to the anti-Ebola efforts in West Africa.
“Those training and treatment units — [a] 25-bed hospital is up — and all the logistics in the construction that has gone into this and continues. If that had not been there, and if that had not occurred over the last few weeks, there would be no infrastructure,” Hagel explained. “There would be very limited capability for those [civilian] caregivers to do their job.”
In addressing why the United States military has undertaken the mission to fight the disease, the defense secretary characterized the Ebola threat as serious as terrorism and Islamic extremism.
Hagel noted, “I know the question is obvious. What is our military doing involved in a mission like Ebola? It’s a legitimate question, but you all understand the perils, the threats, the challenges that face our country.”
“The challenges and threats that face our country in the world today are not just from Islamic fundamentalists or from terrorists,” he continued. “Yes, that’s a real threat. That’s a threat we are dealing with. But pandemic health diseases and pandemic health threats threaten the world. Ebola is part of that overall scope of threats.”
He indicated that the U.S. military needs to use its “unique capabilities” to contain the Ebola virus in West Africa so it does not reach the United States.
Our role there, as you know, is to apply those unique capabilities to help and assist the [civilian] caregivers, our own interagency institutions that are there to help the Liberian people, the people of West Africa contain this terrible disease and virus, contain it there. … It is in our interest, clearly, to do that.
About 2,200 U.S. troops have been deployed to combat the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Senegal as part of an international effort to stop the spread of the virus. An estimated half are from Forth Campbell, according to Hagel.
The overall number of troops expected to deploy to West Africa will not exceed 3,000, according to U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gary. J. Volesky, who commands the Ebola mission and the 101st Airborne Division. Pentagon officials had previously estimated that up to 4,000 troops would be needed.
The defense secretary has authorized the involuntary mobilization of about 2,100 Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers from 12 states to fight the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa.
U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that American soldiers will not treat people infected with Ebola. Hagel has mandated that troops undergo a 21-day quarantine upon their return from the Ebola mission.
The World Health Organization reported that Ebola has killed over 5,100 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
The infections continue to rise, but at a much slower pace, Deborah Malac, the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, told Pentagon reporters last week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.