It’s a different kind of hot spot to which U.S. Army troops are deploying in increasing numbers, helping to fight against a terror that has killed by the thousands but not with bombs or bullets.
Soliders with the 101st Airborne from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, deployed to West Africa as part of Joint Force Command -Operation United Assistance, the U.S.-led effort to stem the spread of Ebola in the region.
Army Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, commander of the 101st, called it “a critical mission” as his soldiers prepared for the deployment in late September.
“We will coordinate all of the Department of Defense resources in Liberia to support USAID and the government of Liberia to contain the Ebola virus, and ultimately save lives,” he said.
Up to 4,000 American troops, mostly Army, are expected to take part in the operation. On Oct. 6 about 350 had arrived in the region. More than 300 were in Liberia and the rest in Senegal, which will be the staging area for moving supplies and personnel into Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the areas hardest hit by the outbreak, the Defense Department said.
President Obama announced that the U.S. would lead the effort to halt the outbreak on Sept. 16.
But the fight against Ebola is only the latest and most widely known of the Army’s Africa missions, which have been growing in number and scope in recent years.
U.S. Army Africa remains headquartered in Vicenza, Italy, where until 2008 it had been known as the Southern European Task Force. But when U.S. Africa Command stood up in 2008 the name was changed. The evolution was further marked by assigned troops adopting the Army’s standard black beret, doffing the maroon berets that had been part of the uniform.
Regular Army as well as Army Reservists and Army National Guard members have participated in various combat train and equip missions, medical training and assistance programs and exercises with host nation militaries. Often these are done in cooperation with Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force commands and units that, like U.S. Army Africa, are subordinated to U.S. Africa Command.
Army Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. Africa Command, told Congress in March that in 2013 the overall command conducted 55 operations, 10 exercises, and 481 security cooperation activities, “making Africa Command an extremely active geographic command.”
In July, U.S. Army Africa troops and the 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, joined military units from Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Namibia for Exercise Southern Accord 14, intended to hone joint warfighting skills of African nations. Not only U.S., but German and British personnel took part in the exercise.
A month earlier U.S. Africa troops and members of the 1st ID’s 4th Brigade took part in Exercise Western Accord 14 in Senegal. The program included live-fire and combat marksmanship training, peacekeeping operations, disaster response, intelligence capacity building, according to U.S. Africa Command.
One part of the program called for quelling a mock food riot – something that U.S. military leaders expect could become more frequent in the future.
It was nearly four years ago when Marine Corps Commandant Gen. John Amos – newly appointed to the top job – told Marines they would be looking at fighting in desperate parts of the world, where “water will become a more valuable commodity than fossil fuels will be ... Competition for resources is going to be extreme in these developing countries.”
The same point was made by Rodriguez in March, when he testified before Congress. He warned that the region bore all the ingredients for conflict – weak governance, corruption and political instability, as well as food security and poor access to natural resources, including water.
“In some countries, the failure of governments to deliver basic services to the people and enforce the rule of law has fueled distrust and fear in the government and security forces,” he said. “Where a country lacks good leadership, external actors have only a modest capacity to positively influence the country’s future. Where there is leadership that has the best interests of the country at heart, the United States and other partners can apply judicious measures to help the country move forward.”
For now, those “judicious measures to help” are on display in West Africa against Ebola.
A 25-bed hospital should be near completion in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, and troops are expected to begin assembling the first of 17 100-bed treatment centers across the region by Oct. 28.
The World Health Organization said the current outbreak is the worst in history. To date the virus has claimed some 3,400 men, women and children in the region, with Liberia apparently among the worst affected counties.
“[Liberia] is overwhelmed,” Rodriguez told reporters Oct. 7. “Their health facilities are overwhelmed. That’s all broken down, so we have to bring in everything at the same time.”