Aside from the obvious, the Army has two big concerns for the troops it sent to a temporary quarantine at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on their way home from an Ebola-fighting mission in West Africa.
The first is that they don’t come down with a cold or flu bug after jumping climates from Africa to the Puget Sound area.
The second is keeping them busy for three weeks of routine monitoring that’s required to ensure they have not contracted the deadly Ebola virus.
“We do not want idle hands. We’ve got it planned out right until we leave,” said 1st Sgt. Scott Legg, the senior enlisted leader in a 100-soldier Army construction unit that arrived at JBLM on Jan. 2 after a two-month mission in Liberia.
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He and his soldiers are eager to go home to Colorado. In the meantime, they’re trying to make the most of a mandatory isolation period designed to keep them away from civilians during the virus’ 21-day incubation period.
“We’re taking advantage of this time to catch up on a lot of administrative work,” said Capt. Ryan Horton, commander of the construction troops in the 615th Engineer Company at Fort Carson, Colorado.
JBLM is one of five domestic military installations hosting troops coming back from West Africa. It’s housing quarantined troops in World War II-era barracks that most recently were used for summertime ROTC exercises.
The barracks were warm this week when the Army brought reporters from The News Tribune to the base for a tour of the containment area. Troops get three hot meals a day brought to them from a nearby dining facility. Food scraps are discarded in sealed bins and hauled away by LeMay Inc.
“Everything is monitored very closely,” said 1st Sgt. Robert Sarver, one of the soldiers from JBLM’s 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command who is overseeing the camp.
Inside a fenced-off area called Camp Blackjack, soldiers spend their days on health checkups, team sports, classes, exercise and video games. The Wi-Fi works well, and they have all the time they need to communicate with their families.
They just can’t leave the fence until they wait out the quarantine.
In that sense, it’s a lot like the stations in Kuwait that troops pass through on their way to combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Civilians have even started sending care packages.
JBLM began preparing the barracks in October when the Pentagon ramped up its deployments to West Africa, aiming to build Ebola treatment centers that could be used to fight a virus that claimed 8,000 lives in 2014.
Horton’s company deployed to build roads and facilities for aid workers. His soldiers expected a nine-month deployment but were able to come home early because the Liberian government has sped up construction with its own contractors.
The engineers left Fort Carson on short notice after families and soldiers took classes to learn how Ebola is spread.
“Education is key,” said Horton, 31. “A lot of the initial fears of facing this unknown disease really went away. Ebola is not the boogeyman hiding under your bed. It is a disease that is preventable.”
The protocol the Army developed to keep soldiers healthy remains in effect at Camp Blackjack. Visitors must stay 3 feet away from anyone who has spent time in West Africa. No one shakes hands with another person.
Visitors are encouraged to use hand anti-bacterial liquids frequently. Small bottles of hand sanitizer are stacked up at nearly every doorway.
Twice a day, doctors from Madigan Army Medical Center visit the camp to check the temperatures of Horton’s soldiers, the second group of quarantined troops to pass through JBLM since October. The first group was much smaller, with 16 people.
If any soldiers were to display Ebola symptoms, they would be removed from the camp and taken to another controlled site at Madigan. That would trigger enhanced monitoring of the rest of the soldiers in the camp.
But the engineers did not visit known contaminated areas in Liberia, and are considered “low to no risk” of contracting Ebola.
“We have almost no concern about them having Ebola,” said Maj. Jon Messenger, an Army medical officer who’s supervising some of the care for soldiers coming back from Liberia. “Realistically, we’re going to be giving out a lot of cold medicine for the next few weeks.”
Company leaders Horton and Legg said their mission to Liberia was memorable for them because it was their first time deploying on a humanitarian mission. Horton is Afghanistan veteran; Legg fought in Iraq and Kosovo as a combat engineer.
“It’s a complete change of mentality,” said Legg, 39, who has served for 21 years in the Army. “Everywhere I ever went, I went with a weapon as a soldier.”
Both said they felt they could have stayed longer in West Africa to help.
“The (Liberian) people were very, very glad to have the amount of international support they got,” Horton said. “The fight’s not over.”