FORT HOOD, Texas (Oct. 9, 2014) -- Soldiers from the 36th Engineer Brigade received personal protective equipment training here, today, as part of their continued preparations for an anticipated deployment to West Africa.
Training included donning the white Tyvex jumpsuits, Nitrile blue gloves and field protective masks that will serve as barrier protection against Ebola and other contagious pathogens, while in Liberia.
The brigade's element makes up 450 of approximately 500 Fort Hood Soldiers preparing to deploy to West Africa in support of Operation United Assistance.
During the deployment, the brigade headquarters will provide mission oversight of the joint engineer forces in Liberia, and the subordinate units will be primarily focused on construction of life-support areas for U.S. troops and Ebola treatment units, said Col. Heath Roscoe, commander, 36th Eng. Bde.
Life support areas will include tents, latrines and infrastructure for U.S. troops.
"We're all about construction. We are going in with that primary focus," Roscoe said. "We will interact with the community on some extent, with contractors and probably to some extent with the armed forces of Liberia, in order to get the mission done, but we are not there to treat or take care of or evacuate somebody who's been infected with Ebola."
The Ebola treatment units will serve to reduce spread of the virus by separating the infected. The engineer Soldiers will not remain at the Ebola treatment units once construction, which takes about 30 days per unit, is complete, the brigade commander said.
"Once we build them, we will move on," he said.
With their construction mission defined, Soldiers are currently focused on the medical aspect of working in the pandemic area, and ensuring their own safety.
Experts are onsite at Fort Hood to help the Soldiers prepare for the unorthodox deployment.
While Soldiers donned the equipment and tested their range of movement, a team of four environmental health and safety technicians from the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, known as USAMRIID, based at Fort Detrick, Maryland, helped ensure Soldiers followed the correct sequence to avoid exposure when suiting up or removing the gear, and made sure the gear fit properly.
"We are here making sure they follow the steps," explained John McGuffin, a technician from USAMRIID who regularly uses the same containment gear. "We make sure they are touching the right place when they are supposed to."
In addition to the equipment, Soldiers have learned protective measures, including how to identify someone with Ebola, to recognize the symptoms, how to monitor their own health. They also are learning about other health hazards in the region during medical briefings.
Malaria, Yellow Fever, Rabies and hepatitis are among other health concerns in West Africa that could pose more of a direct threat to U.S. troops, explained Col. Jim Geracci, III Corps surgeon.
"Those are an absolute risk for Soldiers and they must have discipline with using protective measures," he said. "We try to tell them about the threats, what we're doing to protect them and what they have to do."
Soldiers also must prepare for the locals to interact with them, like they have in Afghanistan and Iraq, Geracci said.
"We have to prepare for those variables," he said.
The protective equipment not only provides a barrier from infection, but also helps to build confidence in the Soldiers, the surgeon added.
"They know that, if needed, they have the ability to protect themselves," Geracci said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry also emphasized the importance of the Soldiers' mission and training during a visit to Fort Hood, today.
"This is a very important role you are playing here," Perry said. "You are (about to) do a great service for the world. The training you are going through will serve you well."
Perry spent time with the Soldiers and observed them as they suited up in their personal protective equipment, referred to as PPE.
Roscoe, who attended PPE training Oct. 8, echoed Perry's and Geracci's remarks.
"I did this training yesterday, and I will tell you I have a lot of confidence in the ability of this protective equipment to protect me and my Soldiers from the Ebola virus," Roscoe said, adding that the Ebola virus is not a disease that can be caught easily.
"As long as my Soldiers, and I know they will, will be disciplined and exercise good personal hygiene, we will significantly mitigate the risk of Ebola while we are deployed," he added. "I feel that my Soldiers are pretty well trained."
Soldiers also will have access to robust medical support throughout the deployment, and the priority will be on their health and well-being.
"Soldiers' safety and their health is our No. 1 priority," Roscoe said.
As the Soldiers continue to prepare to deploy, the brigade also is working to ease concerns from both Soldiers and their families.
"I think there is some apprehension there," Roscoe said. "But I've talked to our families, and [I've] addressed the families' concerns, and the Soldiers' concerns."
The brigade hosted a town hall Monday, to listen to the Soldiers and their families, as well as to hear from the brigade surgeon about Ebola, Roscoe added.
Spc. John Melton said his wife is pretty nervous, but also prepared for this deployment. Melton said he explained to his wife what he will be doing, and that his risk of exposure to Ebola will be low, to calm her fears.
"We should have minimal, if any at all, contact with Ebola patients," he said. "I'm not scared about it."