It was not, he stressed, a “mission accomplished” moment, but it did mark an important chance to recognize how the situation in West Africa has dramatically changed.
“Remember, there was no small amount of skepticism about our chances,” he said. “People were understandably afraid, and if we’re honest, some stoked those fears.”
The five-month mission to West Africa was launched amid serious concerns about an Ebola pandemic and the possibility of US troops being infected. At one point, Gen. John Kelly, head of US Southern Command, warned that if the virus came to Mexico, “It’s literally ‘Katie bar the door.’... There will be mass migration into the United States.”
While not unfounded, the fears proved markedly inflated. Between November and February, new cases of Ebola in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone plummeted from 2,032 to 371, according to a chart posted on the White House website, which attributed the decline to “US-led containment efforts.” Also, no US troops have been diagnosed with the disease.
US troops helped to build hospitals and generally boosted “international confidence to respond,” said Rear Adm. Scott Giberson, acting deputy surgeon general, who introduced Mr. Obama in remarks at the White House Wednesday.
“We have risen to the challenge,” Obama said, taking the podium. The Ebola response, he added, stands as an example that “policy based not on fear, but on good judgment” can “turn the tide of the epidemic.”
Originally, top US military officers estimated that the mission would last 18 months and would include six-month rotations for up to 4,000 troops total.
Now, most of the 1,300 US troops currently in West Africa can return to their home bases by the end of April. The Pentagon will keep roughly 100 service members in the region to strengthen “disease preparedness and surveillance capacity,” defense officials say.
The US will continue to take precautions for those who are still on the ground in West Africa, Obama says. At Fort Bragg, N.C., where more than 60 service members will land next week, there are still procedures in place for a 21-day quarantine, known as “controlled monitoring process” in current military parlance.
During this time, troops will have access to “areas to work out, a dining facility, medical treatment, and the ability to stay in touch with family and friends,” notes a Fort Bragg press release sent out this week. They will also receive daily medical evaluations.
Fort Bragg is one of five military bases around the country that were designated as quarantine centers during the height of concern about the Ebola outbreak.
“In accordance with Department of Defense guidelines, the facilities are fenced from the general public and marked accordingly to preclude the risk of inadvertent exposure to the Fort Bragg community,” the press release noted.
A recommendation from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, was due to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Jan. 31 about whether troops returning from West Africa should continue to be quarantined.
General Dempsey delivered that recommendation, but no decision has been made yet, Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, told reporters Tuesday.
The recommendation has not been made public. “It’s up at the secretary’s office now,” he said, “being reviewed.”