Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed off Wednesday on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that all service members returning to the U.S. from the Ebola response effort in West Africa be quarantined for 21 days.
"The fact is the military will have more Americans in Liberia than any other department," Hagel said in explaining his order at a "Washington Ideas Forum" sponsored by the Aspen Institute.
Hagel said the quarantines had been discussed with military families and they "very much wanted a safety valve on this."
"This order will apply to all military services that are contributing personnel to the fight against Ebola at its source," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
The isolation order came as the number of troops from all services on the ground in West Africa passed 1,100. Currently, there are a total of 1,104 troops deployed to West Africa in the Ebola containment effort - 983 in Liberia and 121 in Senegal -- said Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
The order also came as the Defense Threat Reduction Agency was contracted to equip C-17 and C-130 transports with isolation units to return troops to the U.S. who may have been infected with the Ebola virus in West Africa.
The move to develop special isolation pallets for C-17s and C-130s, first reported by the Washington Post, was taken "out of an abundance of caution" as a force protection measure, said Jennifer Elzea, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
"It's in development as a prototype right now," Elzea said of the specialized pallet, and "we hope to move ahead for fielding for use in early 2015."
Currently, Phoenix Air, a jet charter service in Cartersville, Ga., has the only isolation units designed to transfer patients safely by air.
President Obama and Pentagon officials have said that as many as 4,000 troops might be sent to West Africa on deployments expected to last from six to nine months in the battle against the virus that has ravaged the health care systems of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
More than 4,900 deaths and 10,000 infections have been recorded in those three countries, according to the World Health Organization. Hagel's action followed the initial move by Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, last week in ordering 21-days isolation and "enhanced monitoring" for soldiers returning from West Africa.
Army Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams and 11 soldiers on his staff were ordered into isolation at the U.S. garrison in Vicenza, Italy, upon returning from Liberia.
Williams, the commander of U.S. Army Africa, led the military's efforts at containing Ebola in West Africa before turning over command last week to Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, commander of the 101st Airborne Division.
In his statement, Kirby also said that Hagel had directed the Joint Chiefs to develop a detailed plan for implementing the "21-day controlled monitoring regimen."
In addition, the service chiefs were ordered to conduct a review within 45 days of "whether or not such controlled monitoring should continue based on what we learn and observe from the initial waves of personnel returning from Operation United Assistance."
The military's 21-day isolation order appeared to be stricter than the guidelines for returning civilian health care workers set out by the Centers of Disease Control.
The Pentagon has stressed that service members in West Africa were not expected to have direct contact with Ebola patients, but were to focus on building treatment centers and providing logistical support for civilian medical personnel.
The new CDC guidelines called for high-risk travelers - those who had come in direct contact with the bodily fluids or the corpse of an Ebola patient - to be isolated at home for 21 days and monitored by local or state health officials.
However, those considered not to have come in direct contact with an Ebola patient, which would seem to include military personnel, would be monitored for 21 days but would not be restricted to their homes.
The issue of quarantines and President Obama's overall plan for combating the epidemic has come under heavy criticism from Congress. In statements on the White House lawn Monday, Obama tried to explain why service members deploying to West Africa would be treated differently than civilians upon return to the U.S.
"Well, the military is a different situation, obviously, because they are, first of all, not treating patients," Obama said. "Second of all, they are not there voluntarily, it's part of their mission that's been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, the Commander-in-Chief."
"So we don't expect to have similar rules for our military as we do for civilians. They (service members) are already, by definition, if they're in the military, under more circumscribed conditions," Obama said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com