Marines with a Spain-based task force were some of the first U.S. troops dispatched to West Africa to help combat the spread of Ebola, and since arriving in early October they've been kept busy laying the foundation for what's expected to become a large-scale, long-term humanitarian mission.
The Marine Corps force in Liberia numbers about 100 personnel and includes four MV-22B Ospreys and two KC-130J Super Hercules cargo airplanes. They're being used primarily for aerial site surveys, reconnaissance and to transport senior U.S and African officials, including Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Deborah Malac, said 1st Lt. Gerard Farao, a spokesman for the unit.
The overall U.S. military presence in West Africa could grow to 4,000 troops, mostly from the Army. The Marines' role there is not expected to last much longer, officials say. They left Moron air base Oct. 8, and it was announced at the time that they'd spend only a few weeks detached from the service's crisis-response force for the region, a relatively new outfit trained to deal with everything from humanitarian crises to embassy reinforcement.
In Liberia, "they are currently filling the airlift capability gap ... until the Army is able to deploy their helicopters to Liberia and assume the long-term mission." Farao said.
The days are busy, Farao said. Marines are moving U.S. and Liberian troops, contractors, and workers from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Officials said the Ospreys, in particular, have been useful in allowing those involved with Ebola response access to rugged and undeveloped areas that are hard to reach.
"One of the challenges we're having is 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 either on foot or — in this case, from the air," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters recently.
Another challenge: It's monsoon season in West Africa. Wet conditions make it tough to work, creating "hours and hours" of setbacks every day, he said.
The World Health Organization said Oct. 29 that rate of new Ebola cases is beginning to slow. That same day, the Pentagon announced that all U.S military personnel involved in the Ebola response mission — Operation United Assistance — will be put into a 21-day "controlled monitoring regimen" once they leave Africa.
The virus is contagious only when an infected person is symptomatic, a process that can take as long as 21 days to occur after exposure. Beyond that, a person is not at risk of becoming sick after exposure.
U.S. officials are quick to say, too, that military personnel are not in direct contact with Ebola patients. They're providing only logistical support for civilian health care workers.