A lot of people were surprised to hear that the President was committing troops to fight Ebola in West Africa. I'll admit, I was a little surprised myself – especially when I heard that at least some of the troops being sent were part of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. I mean, wouldn't it make more sense to send doctors, nurses, and field medics?
But these soldiers aren't going to fight Ebola directly. They are going to build hospitals, quarantine units, and testing facilities. They are going to help build treatment centers for healthcare workers – some American, some not – who contract the virus while trying to help others. They are not going to have any contact with patients – the clinics will be staffed as they are built by medics and doctors who have had extensive training in dealing with infectious disease in a field environment.
This was the reasoning behind the statement out of Fort Campbell that confirmed that soldiers deployed to West Africa with the 101st Airborne Division would not be hitting the ground with full hazmat suits. And it makes sense, to an extent.
Hazmat suits are hot. They are uncomfortable, they are heavy, and wearing one for even an hour can leave you dehydrated and short of breath. Walking a quarter of a mile feels like sprinting a marathon. And the face plate all but obliterates your peripheral vision. To expect soldiers to function in those suits all day everyday is bordering on ridiculous – especially if their mission does not put them in physical contact with locals.
But there's more.
Ebola is primarily carried by bats. It finds its way into the human population when indigent people, in desperation, eat bats. Because dogs can also carry the virus, a dog who catches an infected bat also poses a risk.
Now, I know you're thinking that American soldiers are not likely to leave base and hunt bats for food and sport. However, they have been known on more than a few occasions to befriend local dogs – some have even brought dogs home from war zones. Soldiers have also been known to get “friendly” with the locals.
So there will be a number of safety briefings given to deploying soldiers. They will be warned about the risks posed by local animals and especially by local people. As an old Army pathologist used to say: “don't eat or sleep with anything that didn't come into the country on the plane with you.”
But the soldiers themselves aren't the only risk. What happens when the locals learn of the arrival of Americans? What happens when they get desperate enough to approach the American soldiers be beg for treatment? And what if they approach the soldiers who are just there to build and therefore not provided with full hazmat suits and protective gear?
Do the soldiers refuse them entry? And if so, how does the media respond? “American soldiers leave locals to die outside military hospital in West Africa. Hey, if only the Republicans had given us more money…”
Do the soldiers do their best to treat the patients despite their lack of equipment? And if so, how many soldiers do we lose over this?
I fully believe that there are protocols in place to which we as citizens may never be privy due to their classified status. And I hope that our priority is to keep our soldiers safe first. After all, if you don't secure your own oxygen mask first, you will be helpless to save your child with his.