MONROVIA, Liberia — The general and his soldiers have spent more than a decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan but this could be one of their toughest battles yet.
Their enemy this time is not soldiers or militants. It is Ebola — invisible and killing thousands in Liberia.
Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams, the commander of U.S. Army Africa who is leading the advance team into Liberia, says the mandate here — straight from President Barack Obama — is different from other missions.
“We were brought in to provide our unique capabilities and fill the gaps,” the two-star general says.
In other words, Williams and his troops are here in a supporting role and not a leading one.
But Williams –who still remembers his college game when he tackled American Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino — also looks and sounds like he’s ready for this fight.
As two Osprey military aircraft appear on the horizon, signalling the opening of an air bridge from Senegal that will put more U.S. troops on the ground in Liberia, Williams can’t contain his excitement.
“You want to know where the U.S. military is? It’s right here,” the general says, pointing skyward.
But tackling Ebola is a tough task and six months after the start of the unprecedented outbreak, critics say the international response continues to be woefully slow.
At Liberian government-run Ebola care units, overcrowding has forced patients to sleep on the floors and many healthcare workers who say they’ve gone weeks since their last pay checks are now threatening to strike.
“There is no question in my mind that we are making an impact,” the U.S. unit’s chief medical officer, Colonel Jim Czarnik says.
“It is about doing it quickly but you don’t want to sprint to failure. ”
Czarnik points to four recently opened Ebola testing labs, run by military personnel that are already making a difference.
Thanks to one lab in Bong County, patients now wait hours, not days to get test results. This means patients who test negative spend less time in isolation with those that test positive.
“It’s a game changer,” says Sean Casey, project manager at a care center run by the International Medical Corps charity that sits just minutes down the road from the U.S. Naval laboratory.
“Patients were afraid at one point of coming to an Ebola treatment unit because they were afraid of becoming infected. Now that we have the lab, patients can get the results back within hours.”
But there are just four labs in a country where nearly 1,000 cases of Ebola have been confirmed.
As Williams inspected the construction of the Monrovia Medical Unit, a facility specifically for infected health workers to be run by U.S. government health teams, a crowd of local residents monitors progress from just across the road.
“While we’ll do a lot of tangible things — we’ll build this hospital, we’ll build the Ebola treatment units, provide these labs — there’s a lot of intangible nature to this fight,” he said.
You want to give people the resilience, the hope that they can fight this thing and see this through.”
His U.S. Army Africa advance team is tiny compared to the 101st Airborne that will be replacing them in the coming weeks.
President Obama has authorized up to 4,000 troops to West Africa and since mid-September the few hundred soldiers, sailors and airmen and women in Liberia have been laying the groundwork to make sure that larger force has the housing, medical and logistics in place when they begin to arrive.
“Soldiers are used to moving toward the sounds of the guns. These are the loudest guns that the world has heard in a long time.
“There is no better fight worth fighting then the one in Liberia right now,” says Czarnik.