FORT HOOD — Armored for battle against an invisible enemy, Thursday was a dress rehearsal for soldiers at Fort Hood preparing for deployment to Liberia. Their mission is to assist in a worldwide effort to combat the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa.
“You’re fixing to do a great service for the world,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry told troops gathered for a training exercise in the use of protective clothing.
Operation United Assistance was announced in September, tasking the U.S. Department of Defense with constructing housing and care facilities for Ebola patients in West Africa. More than 3,000 troops are expected to deploy over a six-month period at a cost of roughly $750 million.
More than 500 troops from Fort Hood’s 36th Engineer Brigade, 1st Medical Brigade and 85th Civil Affairs Brigade will deploy by the end of October, along with 200 troops from Fort Bliss. Although the governor’s office says they won’t have contact with patients, Perry acknowledged the danger of working in a region at the heart of a deadly and insidious epidemic.
“When you signed up to serve the United States Army, this may not have been the role that you saw yourself playing,” said Perry. The governor added in encouragement, “it’s the events that happen in life that you don’t see coming that really distinguishes and characterizes who you are.”
The governor’s visit comes one day after Fort Hood authorities met with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
“I raised significant concerns that we make sure that any soldiers who are deployed to an area where there’s an outbreak have sufficient protections to make sure that we protect the health and safety and the men and women who are serving,” Cruz told media Wednesday at Fort Hood, “And that we also have significant protections in place to prevent, God forbid, any soldiers from contracting this horrible disease and inadvertently bringing it back to America.”
Meanwhile civilian passenger screenings are being ramped up at five major international airports at home. New precautions for travelers from affected regions include having their temperatures checked with a laser thermometer and filling out a questionnaire for the Centers for Disease Control.
Health officials say combating the disease at its source is the best defense. The decision to devote military resources is an indicator of just how serious authorities believe further expansion could be.
“In the thirty years I’ve been working in public health, the only thing like this has been AIDS,” CDC Director Tom Frieden told leaders at the World Bank Thursday in Washington, D.C. “And we have to work now, so that this is not the world’s next AIDS.”
For those at Fort Hood who’ll soon join the fight, Perry offered additional encouragement.
“You don’t have to get up in the morning and wonder whether you’re making a difference,” said Perry. “You are.”