What do American troops have to do with medical emergencies? A lot

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World. Deployments are on our mind today and the newest missions facing American servicemen and women. For example, jet pilots who are flying sorties to target militants in Iraq. President Obama spoke to some of them today in Florida at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. It’s home to central command and special operations command, the people overseeing the fight against the so-called Islamic State. But Obama also spoke about that other mission he’s given the US military - helping to fight the spread of Ebola in West Africa. After quoting a Liberian man who welcomed American help, Obama added this thought: President Obama: And that’s the story across the border. If there is a hurricane, if there is a typhoon, if there is some sort of crisis, if there is an earthquake, if there is a need for a rescue mission, when the world is threatened, when the world needs help, it calls on America. Even the countries that complain about America, when they need help, who do they call? They call us. And then America calls on you. Werman: Obama’s call involves the deployment of 3,000 US troops to Liberia to help combat Ebola. But what can those troops really do? I asked retired Captain Jerry Hendrix, he’s the former chief historian of the US Navy and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Jerry Hendrix: The majority of the military service members that are going to go over there are going to be doing things like logistics lift, flying helicopters. There’s going to be construction, individual civil engineers who are going to be building 17 100-bed hospitals or treatment centers. You’re also going to have air traffic controllers who are going to be managing the helicopters as they move around, moving healthcare supplies, food, clean water. There’s also individuals that will be assigned who will be able to manage the refuse, as it were, the materials that may be infected and how to manage that and make sure that it’s handled safely. Werman: Will this new training be something that all servicemen and women will have to go through? Both preparing for a war and preparing for a disease? Hendrix: Well actually, we have been trained to handle humanitarian disasters in the past, to include things like cholera outbreaks that generally are associated with earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. More recently, we responded to a massive earthquake in Pakistan, as well as a large earthquake in Haiti that involved, in the Haitian case, a cholera outbreak. So we are aware of the protocols and that’s another aspect of this. The military is a disciplined force. We write rules on how we’re going to respond to different things and then we try to be disciplined in our approach to that. When you’re dealing with something as virulent and dangerous as Ebola, I think that those protocols and that discipline of the military force is going to be critical to ensuring not only their safety but, in fact, ensuring the safety of others around there to prevent the spread of the disease. Werman: I know with the typhoon that hit Tacloban in the Philippines, it was the Navy, they had the fifth fleet in the Pacific that showed up and helped out. Why does it seem like it is the Navy out of all the armed forces that is the one branch of the military that often leads these efforts? Hendrix: First of all, the Navy is for deployed, they are out there and they’re responsive. They can get there more quickly than other aspects of the military, although the Air Force, if there’s runways available, they can fly in. But the Navy often has ships and most of our ships of course come with combat hospital capabilities built in on board them, especially the amphibious ships that are associated with Marine Corps lift, we bring combat-capable hospitals on board, aircraft carriers, as well as some of the smaller ships, so it’s already built into the package when you’re looking at the United States Navy and this is something the Navy, in fact, has been doing throughout its history. We did it on sort of a case-by-case basis through most of the 19th century. Werman: How far back in the 19th century does it go? Hendrix: The first time there was a major response really was with the Great White Fleet that Theodore Roosevelt had sent out around the world in 1908. On its return leg, coming through the Mediterranean in 1909, there was a massive earthquake in Italy and the Great White Fleet spread out across the Mediterranean up and down the Italian coast and into Sicily to render medical assistance as well as recovery of dead Americans who had been killed, and to include the ambassador and his wife, whose bodies were transported home by the fleet. Werman: I seem to recall pictures of US soldiers down in the Silent Spring DDT to get rid of mosquitoes and malaria. We’ve heard from Liberians that they’re more scared of Ebola than those child soldiers with big guns during their civil war. Do you think that view will also be held by the US military? They can see bullets, they can’t see Ebola. They can at least see mosquitoes. Hendrix: Well, it’s interesting you raise that too because that’s another part of the history where the United States Army has very strong and deep roots. The attack on yellow fever malaria in the Panama Canal zone while the canal was being built was led by individuals such as Walter Reed, from whom the national medical center is named here in Washington, D.C., who did the scientific analysis to determine exactly what was the carrier. Those types of protocols, again, are part of the army’s history, as well. I think everyone is concerned, I mean Ebola has been part of a broader conversation both in movies and in books as we’ve read about the ravages of epidemics and what they could truly imply for civilization. So we’re aware of that, but I also think that the military is disciplined in the way it’s going to handle things, and so these responders we get over there are going to come in, they’re going to be fully briefed on what to do, what not to do, what types of clothing to wear, how to clean up after themselves, what are the protocols if there’s blood or bodily fluids in their vicinity, on how to clean up after that dilemma, the chance of becoming infected or spreading the infection. Again, the military operates on a very disciplined fashion, so I think it’s that discipline that the president and, quite frankly, the local leaders over there are depending upon to help stop the spread of this disease and, in fact, begin turning it back. Werman: The Navy uses the slogan “A global force for good,” are these humanitarian missions also about optics for the military, kind of “We don’t just blow up bad guys”? Hendrix: That’s a great question and you can actually do more to prevent war in peacetime operations through doing this type of an engagement, where you show yourselves, the greatness of the country, the strength of the country, the generosity of the country, the science of the country and what we have to offer to the world, is we go in and we do these local engagements, humanitarian assistance, building partnership capacity and so on, we are in fact preventing the rise of the types of activities that could lead toward later on, or for that matter, changing the way the United States is viewed by actors around the world. Werman: I have to say, it’s kind of odd to hear that from a former captain in the military. That’s not an attitude that’s shared a lot on Capitol Hill these days. Hendrix: Well, I’m, not sure how I would gauge the attitude. What I do know as a historian and as a Navy captain and as an aviator who has flown and served on ships around the world, that these are, in fact, some of the most challenging and yet one of the most gratifying missions we’re called upon to do, to render assistance to our fellow man. I do think the United States Navy is a “global force for good.” We carry the values of our nation forward and I tell you, having served alongside young men and women from all over our country of the last 26 years until my retirement, it is gratifying to watch them interact on a personal level with these individuals and, many times, who are so of need and any bit of generosity you show them is greatly appreciated. So I think that this mission does come with risk. I would not underestimate that. With that being said, I think the president views this as an international crisis that has implications for our national security, and so he has made the decision to respond accordingly. Werman: Doctor and retired Captain Jerry Hendrix, former chief historian of the US Navy, thanks so much for your time. Hendrix: It’s my pleasure. Werman: So US troops will be fighting Ebola in West Africa while also targeting ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, and that got us thinking, what is the role of the US military nowadays? We’ll explore that question tomorrow on The World.