FORT HOOD, Texas – Forgoing combat rifles and body armor, U.S. troops preparing to fight Ebola in Liberia were instead stepping gingerly Thursday into white germ-proof suits and pulling on thick, blue rubber gloves and gas masks.
About 500 soldiers were doing three days of infectious disease training inside a concrete-floored building on Texas’ sprawling Fort Hood – getting ready to join as many as 3,900 troops nationwide authorized to go to areas affected by the virus.
Army medical personnel will treat patients who have Ebola while engineers plan to build temporary medical centers. How long they’ll be deployed is unclear.
“It feels a bit like the … tire man, or a marshmallow,” trainer John McGuffin joked as a group of Army soldiers tottered about in suits resembling billowy hospital gowns.
Dispatched from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland, McGuffin offered tips on spotting Ebola symptoms, then had troops work in pairs to correctly don protective gear.
“We’re going to check each other,” McGuffin said. “If we have a tear in the suit, we’re going to first remain calm. We’re going to remove ourselves from a potentially infectious area, and then we’re going to hit everything with disinfectant.”
The soldiers learned they should step forward, not backward, when removing suits, and clean masks and rubber gloves with alcohol wipes. Duct tape, they were told, works well to seal sleeves to gloves.
Outbreak fears weren’t overt, but there was some nervousness. While Ebola-related training is similar to chemical warfare instruction many troops have had previously, it’s a far cry from battlefield or counterterrorism missions.
“I think there’s some apprehension here, of course,” said Col. Heath Roscoe, commander of the 36th Engineer Brigade, one of three Liberia-bound units from Fort Hood.
To assuage fears, he held a meeting Monday with troops and their families where surgeons fielded questions not only about safety in Liberia but potential risks to relatives once their loved ones come home.
“We’ve seen some other folks, American doctors who got it, were flown back, and I’m pretty confident that our leaders will make sure that happens with our soldiers” if they are stricken with Ebola, Roscoe said.
The disease has killed thousands globally, and a Liberian man in a Dallas hospital who became the first confirmed U.S. case of the virus died Wednesday.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is eying a possible 2016 presidential run, mingled with soldiers during their training Thursday, chatting about college football and other, less-tense topics.
“When you signed up to serve in the United States Army this may not have been the role that you saw yourself playing,” Perry said.
Spc. Michael Potts, a 5-year Army veteran who has previously deployed to Afghanistan, said he’s not nervous – but his family’s a bit jittery.
“They are always worried,” said Potts, 29, from Fort Worth, Texas. “As long as we’re taken care of and we’re focused on what we have to do in order to help out … then we’ll be all right.”
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