USACE mission in West Africa aimed at supporting Ebola containment

Published Nov. 4, 2014
WIESBADEN, Germany – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has joined the fight against Ebola in West Africa.

The main body of Europe District’s Forward Engineer Support Team-Advanced departed Oct. 21 for Monrovia, Liberia, to take part in Operation United Assistance, an Africa Command mission to provide logistics, training and engineering support to U.S. Agency for International Development-led efforts at containing the virus outbreak in the region. District officials said the deployment could last up to six months.

The USACE team consists of personnel with expertise in engineering, environmental management and prime-power generation. It will support the construction of multiple Ebola treatment units at locations chosen by Liberia’s Ministry of Health and armed forces. Civilian and military personnel also will assist with the planning, surveying, and design of life-support and logistics facilities at base camps in Senegal and Liberia for the U.S. government, Liberian and humanitarian workers coordinating virus-containment measures.

The FEST-A is made up of 13 members – nine Army civilian volunteers and four Soldiers. Six represent Europe District, while the remainder joined from other organizations within USACE and its North Atlantic Division. The unit is comprised mostly of civil, electrical, mechanical and environmental engineers.

“I am so proud that we’re able to support this with the technical expertise we provide,” Col. Matthew Tyler, the Europe District commander, said during a departure ceremony Oct. 20 at the agency’s headquarters in Wiesbaden. “You’ll be able to augment not just USAID, AFRICOM and [U.S. Army Africa], but specifically the 101st Airborne Division that’s going to be there on the ground and really head up this mission, along with all the other troops supporting them. You bring incredible expertise that they just do not have.

“You know how to do projects. You know how to do that planning and design. You know how to monitor that construction, and it’s going to be absolutely essential to be able to provide the facilities that they’ll need … to support all those forces running the operation. You all are the best at it. I know you’re going to make a difference.”

The total U.S. troop deployment to West Africa will reach 3,900 by the end of October, according to Pentagon officials, who stress that service members will not provide medical care or have direct contact with Ebola patients. The military role is strictly aimed at boosting civilian health care efforts through construction of new facilities, logistical support and training locals in prevention methods.

“We’ve been talking for weeks now about the support the Corps of Engineers is going to provide to the Ebola crisis,” Lloyd Caldwell, the USACE director of Military Programs, told the team. “People in Washington have been on the edges of their seats waiting for the time when we can put some of our experts, our great professionals, in theater to help the 101st. … So there are a lot of people who have their eyes on you. You’ve stepped up to fill that requirement, and I know you’re going to do it beautifully.”

The FEST-A mobilization unfolded over just a few weeks. The majority of augmentees arrived Oct. 5 at Europe District and quickly engaged in a series of medical checks, immunizations, individual training sessions and team exercises to gain certification for the deployment.

“We’re as prepared as we can be,” said Maj. Michelle Dittloff, the FEST-A commander and a Europe District project manager. “That said … I think that you wouldn’t be human if there wasn’t a fear about this. That’s why I’m so proud of all these volunteers – everybody raised their hands for this mission knowing the risks.

“I understand the unit’s mission is to go in and build facilities; my mission is to bring everyone home safely.”

The team is equipped with a multitude of protective gear, some of which has never been used by most members, said Master Sgt. John Walls, the unit’s non-commissioned officer-in-charge. They will continue gaining familiarity with the equipment through added preparation work, should the need for it ever occur. The group also will follow all necessary safety and health protocols set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the technical lead in this interagency endeavor, to safeguard against exposure.

This year’s Ebola epidemic has claimed more than 4,800 lives in West Africa, with additional suspected cases topping 9,600, according to recent statistics from the World Health Organization.

“It’s an interesting mission where the biggest fear isn’t being shot at, it’s being hugged,” Dittloff said.

USACE officials said the FEST-A’s environmental component will assess existing site conditions for suitability, while its engineering piece prepares location plans. Power requirements for the various facilities also need to be evaluated.

Two specialists from USACE’s Contingency Real Estate Support Team, or CREST, flew to Liberia a few days before the other FEST members to hammer out land-use agreements for this humanitarian-assistance mission. Both work in South Atlantic Division.

“I have a heart for people. That’s why I volunteered,” said James Burch, a real-estate appraiser from Jacksonville District. “The people really need help, so we’ll do what we can. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to contain this thing to keep it from spreading and becoming a major plague.”

Operation United Assistance hits close to home for Milton Ricks, a FEST-A civil engineer out of New York District. He was born and raised in Monrovia before attending university in Texas. His family later emigrated to the United States, after his father died and prior to the First Liberian Civil War, which broke out in 1989.

Ricks, recruited to the team by Walls, brings immense knowledge of the landscape. He plans to retire to Liberia and still visits other relatives there every year. None has been affected by the Ebola outbreak, he said.

“When I saw the announcement for volunteers, I thought, ‘Whatever the case is, just allow me to assist,’” Ricks said. “It was personal, and moral, first of all. To hear that USACE was going and I work for USACE, I felt so good. This is my agency, they are doing this, this is great. That’s when I felt a moral obligation.

“No way they can go and I’m here. I know my way around, I know the culture, know the traditions. … I can help.”

Ricks has deployed multiple times to Afghanistan and Kuwait – all with USACE. But this one strikes an emotional chord.

“My father was a surveyor engineer and a very proud man,” he added. “What I get from this is, if he was alive, he would be so proud that his son did this: ‘He lives in America, he’s got a comfortable life, but you know what, he’s a good man for doing this.’ That is my motivation.”

Anton Klein, a Europe District electrical engineer, said he feels so strongly about the humanitarian mission that he’s leaving behind his wife and their two small children. He’s been to Afghanistan three times, but this marks his first FEST deployment.

“This might be some of the best and most impactful work I ever do in my career, and I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity,” he said. “Even though I’m a little scared of going, I know I’m going with a good team and I know we’re going to take care of each other.

“I think my wife has done most of my worrying for me, but she’s been very supportive. … She understands that I’m trying to do my piece in this and I want to go there and help before [the virus] spreads any further. I hope we get there fast enough and succeed in our mission, and I hope to come home safe.”

Europe District’s FEST-A had a short “dwell time” between deployments. It just returned in late February from a six-month stint in Jordan. Two of the 16 members who served on that campaign are back for the West Africa mission: Walls and Rick Long, a civil engineer from the district’s Spangdahlem Project Office.

Dittloff said she believes this group will be highly effective in carrying out the Liberia tasking.

“We have some remarkably talented and intelligent technical minds on this team,” she added. “What we’re rolling in with is a tremendous amount of flexibility to provide to the joint task force commander. … We have a unit that should be able to do just about anything.”

When the mission ends, personnel will undergo appropriate screening and testing for potential Ebola exposure or symptoms before returning, USACE officials said. The Army announced Monday that all its Soldiers and civilians coming back from Africa would go through a 21-day controlled monitoring process as part of reintegration.

Tyler says safety precautions will be paramount in handling this mission.

“I feel confident that our military, as they have done preparations for this deployment, has put the right procedures in place to make sure everyone comes home safely,” he added.