The Army will stick to the plan to begin ramping up deployments to West Africa later this month despite concerns expressed by top health officials about increased risk to soldiers, Gen. Dan Allyn, the new Army vice chief of staff, said Monday.
"We've been taking an aggressive stance" in preparing units slated to deploy in terms of training and equipment, Allyn said, including "aggressively communicating" to families of the troops the steps taken by the Army to mitigate the risks.
To date, there have been no instances of soldiers refusing to deploy to West Africa or asking to be removed from the lists slated for deployment. "Absolutely not," Allyn said, stressing that the troops "will not be in direct contact" with Ebola victims or those suspected of having contracted the virus.
About 450 troops, including 100 Marines from a Marine Air-Ground Task Force based in Moron, Spain, were currently on the ground in West Africa. Most of the troops were in Liberia to assist local authorities and prepare for the eventual deployment of up to 4,000 troops to contain the spread of the virus that has hit hardest in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.
Headquarters elements of the 101st Airborne Division led by Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the division commander, and specialized units of combat engineers, military police and nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialists were expected to begin moving to West Africa in late October.
Two of the nation's leading health care officials warned Sunday that the first case of the transmission of Ebola in the U.S. heightened concerns for the deploying troops. A Dallas nurse caring for a Liberian patient dying of Ebola reported contracted the virus despite wearing full-body protective gear.
"Certainly going over there, they could indirectly get contact, but their primary mission is not to take care of patients," Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday of the deploying troops on the ABC "This Week" program.
Dr. Richard Besser, the former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control, said that "we have a situation where only 20 percent of patients with Ebola are being treated in treatment units."
"So there are a lot of patients who have Ebola who are not in a protected environment," Besser said. "So the possibility of a soldier getting Ebola is very real and something we have to be ready for."
However, Gen. Dennis Via, head of the Army Materiel Command, said he is "confident that we'll be able to put them in a position to be safe."
The Army has been moving equipment and supplies to Liberia and Senegal from pre-positioned stocks in Livorno, Italy, to set up Force Provider Base Camps for 50-150 personnel each. The base camps include modular housing and provisions for food services, water, laundry and other necessities.
As a precaution, the Army will be supplying all of the food and water for the troops and will not rely on local providers, Via said.
"Our stocks are adequate to support them," Via said.
Via and Allyn spoke in separate meetings with a small group of reporters at the the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference in Washington, D.C.
Both Via and Allyn spoke at length on the threat the Army's readiness and ability to respond to crises posed by the continuing Congressional sequester process that was projected to force more downsizing in 2016.
"Unfortunately, at present the desire to shrink the military to the demands of a defined budget is at odds with the increased instability around the world," Allyn said.
Currently, the Army has 12 brigades "postured and ready to deploy" but the return of sequester would mean that "our training will be underfunded," Allyn said. "It's the reality of a restrained budget."
The result could be that the Army would be forced to send unprepared units to a crisis, and "that's something we as leaders of the Army have promised not to do," Allyn said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com