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Ebola Outbreak Presents Special Challenges For U.S. Military

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In the past, the U.S. military has been able to respond quickly to natural disasters. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, the current outbreak in West Africa poses special challenges.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In 2010, Army Lieutenant General Ken Keen happened to be in Haiti when a massive earthquake struck.

KEN KEEN: We could hear buildings collapsing all around us. And you could see in the valley, the dust rising up from collapsed structures and people screaming etc. So it was evident immediately.

BRUMFIEL: Just as immediate was the response. Haitian officials reached Keen by motorbike to request U.S. aid. Keen, who's now at Emory University, called his headquarters in Miami. Help began flowing into the nation's stricken airport.

KEEN: About 26 hours after the earthquake struck, we had special operations airmen take over management of the airfield to enable aircraft to start landing.

BRUMFIEL: Within days, helicopters were airlifting food and water across the country. Within weeks, the response had grown to tens of thousands of U.S. troops.

KEEN: We had an aircraft carrier. We had two Marine expeditionary units. We had a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division.

BRUMFIEL: In Liberia, the president's plan calls for 3,000 troops who will build 17 Ebola treatment units. The armed forces will also facilitate the training of hundreds of healthcare workers. But Keen says this time around, don't expect these operations to get up and running as quickly.

KEEN: Liberia will clearly offer a lot more challenges than what we confronted in Haiti.

BRUMFIEL: Haiti was right off the coast of Florida. Navy and Coast Guard ships were nearby, ready to serve as a base of operations. Liberia is an ocean away. Operations will be run from outside the country at a staging base in Senegal. But that base needs to be set up, too. Food, fuel, water - all of it will need to be brought in, and that will take time.

KEEN: I think they could move in fairly quickly to establish a presence, but it will take days and weeks to establish sustainable support that may be needed.

BRUMFIEL: And time is working against the military here. With each passing week, more and more people are getting sick with Ebola. By mid-October, there will be thousands of new cases. If it takes much longer than that to get the treatment centers running, the outbreak could soon dwarf the response. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.