US & Canada

Ebola outbreak: US troops train to fight 'invisible enemy'

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Media captionUS troops are preparing to fight an 'invisible enemy' in Ebola

Up to 4,000 US troops are being sent to West Africa to help in the fight to contain the Ebola virus. For veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's a very different deployment.

The basketball hoops have, for now, been folded away. The electronic scoreboard is empty. But the sports hall at Fort Campbell military base is filled with activity.

More than 150 soldiers from the 101st Airborne division have spread out across the polished wooden floors of this cavernous gymnasium to undertake a training course to equip them for their next mission.

Image caption Soldiers try on protective gear before deploying to Liberia

Veterans of a range of combat zones, these soldiers are used to dealing with dangerous situations, but as they listen intently to safety briefings it's clear this deployment is different.

"We've gone from an environment like Iraq or Afghanistan where insurgents have been trying to kill us, to a situation where there's no terrorist with a gun."

"Our enemy is a disease," explains Lt Col Brian DeSantis, the division spokesman.

In a few weeks around 700 men and women from here will be making their way to Liberia as part of US efforts to fight Ebola. They will make up some of the 3,900 troops the Pentagon has said it will be sending to the region.

Image caption The gymnasium at Fort Campbell was turned into a training facility

They will be working with USAID, the government agency leading US efforts to fight Ebola, to help build treatment centres, and to train the healthcare workers who will work there. The mission is likely to last anywhere from six to 12 months, but could be longer.

Officials say it's highly unlikely US troops will come into direct contact with any Ebola patients. This training is designed to protect troops from the worst case scenario, which is why they are being fitted with gas masks and shown how to properly wear the space-like protective suits. They are also taught how to protect from malaria, rabies and deadly snakes - a far greater risk to them than Ebola.

Image caption It is unlikely that US troops will come in direct contact with Ebola patients, but the soldiers prepare for worst-case scenarios

For many here, the new battle they're about to fight presents fresh challenges - a change in mindset for starters, says DeSantis.

"They're used to deploying to Afghanistan or Iraq where they can see the enemy. In this case it's an unseen enemy. It's an enemy the Department of Defense hasn't taken on in recent history."

"There was some surprise at first that we would get this type of mission but it quickly turned into, 'How are we going to do this'," explains DeSantis, a veteran of four tours to Afghanistan. Another key difference from previous deployments is that this time there's been far less lead time than the several months they usually get. Pre-mission training sessions have been quickly introduced.

But DeSantis says these troops are well prepared. More than 1,400 soldiers have taken the Ebola safety training at the base.

Master Sergeant Nealie Pearson, who works with the Army's sexual assault unit, supporting victims of violence in the military, is travelling to Liberia soon.

One challenge she sees is a lack of precedent. "I think for the other missions there was someone that we were replacing," she says.

"There's no one to show you the ropes and say, 'Ok this is where this happens'. Everything that we are doing, we are the first ones to do."

That means working out the most basic of things, such as what equipment to take and where to sleep, she says.

Image caption Nealie Pearson says this mission's lack of precedent provides challenges

She says the invisible nature of the enemy means Pearson and her colleague will have to be more alert in different ways. A simple headache, for example, can't just be ignored.

Pearson, who is a veteran of three tours to Afghanistan, says her family is more scared about this upcoming trip than those that went before.

"I try to tell them that the chances of me coming into contact with the Ebola virus are pretty low," she says. "I'm not medical personnel."

Nearly 200 soldiers are already in Liberia. The rest will join them by the end of this month.

"We're excited that we are doing something that is so important for this country," says DeSantis, "The President has called upon the army. It's an honour."

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