Europe District engineer team returns as Liberia is Ebola-free

Published May 29, 2015
WIESBADEN, Germany – The remaining military members on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team sent to Liberia for Operation United Assistance made it back to Germany earlier this month, just as the West African nation was declared Ebola-free.

Colleagues, family and friends welcomed home Europe District’s Forward Engineer Support Team-Advanced at a small ceremony May 11 in the Amelia Earhart Center, the agency’s Wiesbaden headquarters. The FEST-A’s six-month deployment was built around supporting the Joint Force Command, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Agency for International Development with technical and engineering expertise during the broad effort to stop the spread of Ebola in the region.

“I want to thank the entire FEST team,” said Col. Matthew Tyler, the Europe District commander. “They represented all sorts of districts that came together to execute this mission, from New England down to Savannah [Georgia]. … I know you guys worked very well as a team. We are proud of what you did, and the Corps of Engineers is extremely proud of what you accomplished.”

Overall, 13 FEST members took part in the Liberia campaign – nine Army civilian volunteers and four Soldiers. As mission demands decreased, some individuals left earlier than others.

The team assisted lead U.S. and Liberian engineers with the construction of 10 Ebola treatment units across the country. It also provided key logistical and life support by maintaining base facilities for humanitarian and public health officials who delivered medical care to patients throughout West Africa. The FEST helped sustain a DOD presence that numbered 2,800 personnel at its peak.

According to the World Health Organization, Ebola has killed 11,120 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, with total cases approaching 27,000. Nearly 200 health workers died fighting Ebola in Liberia. But after going 42 days without a new case of the fatal disease – twice the maximum incubation period – the WHO announced May 9 that Liberia was free of Ebola.

“That is hugely a [testament] to the United States response, a response that included the FEST-A and the work you all did,” Tyler told the team. “I know you guys are just one small part of a massive effort … but you contributed a very unique aspect of some professional engineering and good, hard technical knowledge. I think that’s a major accomplishment.”

As the technical engineering arm for the 101st, the FEST performed well under often-difficult circumstances and was able to validate many key decisions by the JFC, which ultimately benefited the operation’s virus-containment measures, said Maj. Michelle Dittloff, the team’s commander. USACE proved particularly valuable in quality assurance, inspection and contract supervision – functions not routinely carried out within a light Infantry division.

“It’s wonderful that Liberia is Ebola-free and we certainly hope that continues,” she said. “I look back at what Liberia was like when we got there in October. It was like a ghost town. People were not congregating. In fact, they were basically barred from any sort of congregation. They weren’t doing church services, the schools were closed, no sporting events. All those things are happening again today.”

The contingent’s military members – Dittloff, Master Sgt. John Walls, non-commissioned officer-in-charge; Capt. Willem Pretorius, a project engineer; and Sgt. 1st Class Will Land of the 249th Engineer Battalion – went through mandatory 21-day controlled monitoring at Fort Bliss, Texas. The returning civilians self-monitored at home, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols.

“It’s good to be home and back with family,” Dittloff said. “Controlled monitoring is basically like medical imprisonment, but I cannot say enough great things about the people at Fort Bliss who took care of us. They absolutely did their best to provide a decent lifestyle while we were locked down.”

It was indeed an atypical deployment, she added, different than anything team members had experienced on prior Middle East tours. Liberia’s heat, humidity, remote living, demanding mission requirements and occasional monotony presented challenges as well.

“Conditions were austere, compared to previous deployments I made with USACE,” said Jason Riharb, a FEST civil engineer and water-well expert. “Afghanistan was a well-developed airfield with well-developed [forward operating bases]. Liberia was expeditious in nature and did not permit the luxuries or accommodations experienced on previous deployments.”

Riharb, who came home early to his job as a project engineer at the district’s Stuttgart Resident Office, performed numerous duties during his four months in Liberia, including: route reconnaissance, bridge inspections and master planning for base camps. He also prepared contractual documents for the renovation and establishment of bases, training centers and mobile-testing labs while handling some ETU layout for flooring systems and drainage.

“With any group effort, especially those efforts which require living and working in close proximity, there were challenges,” he said. “Overall, the team worked well together to quickly and professionally deliver engineering solutions in support of Operation United Assistance. The experience is one that I’m glad to have contributed to.”

The FEST-A provided continual assessment of maintenance and repairs to Roberts International Airports in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, throughout the operation. Walls praised Rick Long, a team civil engineer from Europe District’s Spangdahlem Project Office, and Pretorius for their roles in keeping the runway open. In the mission’s aftermath, USAID recently sought Europe District to be the construction agent overseeing a full, multimillion-dollar overhaul and upgrade of Roberts, officials said.

Anton Klein, an electrical engineer, and Land went all over the country evaluating the Liberian power grid and making sure it could support operational needs, the FEST NCOIC added. As the deployment drew to an end, the FEST played an important part in phased theater closure, breakdown of base camps and consolidation.

In various media reports, critics have said the U.S. Ebola response in West Africa was too costly and ineffective. They claim millions of dollars were spent building treatment centers that largely sit empty. The New York Times reported in April that only 28 Ebola patients had been treated at the 11 total treatment units built by the U.S. military.

For their part, Europe District officials say that’s a sign of mission success.

“The flip side of that is what could’ve happened had these World Health Organization predictions come true that they would have a million cases of Ebola,” Dittloff said. “No one knew at the time how it might play out. I would hate to think what the alternative would’ve been.

“You can always make every right call when you’re looking backward. But the difference between Liberia in October and April when we left was night and day.”

Almost without exception, the local population was happy to see the U.S. military and international responders, Walls said.

“The Liberians really liked us being there,” he added. “They were always thankful and really, really appreciative.”

Dittloff praised the tireless efforts of her group, saying it was highly effective in meeting mission objectives.

“I give so much credit to each one of the team members who brought something special to the table,” she said. “The speed at which we pushed this FEST team out the door, I think it’s going to be a standard going forward for FEST teams to aspire to. We were basically stood up on Oct. 1, and we were in Liberia three weeks later.

“If this is a type of mission the U.S. military is going to get involved with in the future, that deployment speed is something we at USACE certainly need to consider, because national and natural disasters don’t operate on the same timeline as a battlefield contingency.”