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101st Airborne Switches Gears; Prepares To Fight Ebola

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Since the 9/11 attacks, the 101st Airborne has been one of the U.S. Army's most heavily deployed divisions. But now the men and women of the 101st are prepping for a mission where they'll be relying more on rubber gloves than body armor as a first line of defense. They're deploying to Liberia to fight an altogether different kind of enemy - Ebola. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN has the story from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: These infantry soldiers could break down a rifle and put it back together way faster than squeezing into three pairs of latex gloves layered on top of each other. Add the gas mask, rubber boots and Tyvek suit, then getting out of all of it - it's a real process.

KAIYA CAPUCHINO: You may grab the outside of the suit and peel it off yourself like a banana. This may take a little bit of wiggle.

FARMER: Before going to Iraq or Afghanistan, these soldiers are clearing buildings or holding mock maneuvers, not circling up in a gymnasium to learn decontamination protocols. Specialist Cody Adams is an MP who got back from Afghanistan a year ago.

SPECIALIST CODY ADAMS: I mean, it's nice that you're not worried about getting shot, but just - the threat is everywhere now.

FARMER: Adams says Africa to him is a scarier assignment than Afghanistan. This is the sixth deployment for Sergeant First Class Anthony Maddox.

SERGEANT FIRST CLASS ANTHONY MADDOX: Are we all scared? Yeah. You're going to environment that's a bit hostile to somebody that's not from there - hell, it's hostile to the people that are from there. So, yeah, there's a bit of fear.

FARMER: The pre-deployment briefings don't exactly ease those anxieties about Ebola.

CAPTAIN TYLER MARK: You know, if you're unfortunate enough to have somebody sneeze directly into your eyeball, you could get it.

FARMER: In front of bleachers full of troops in camouflage, Captain Tyler Mark clicks through a slide presentation regarding the signs and symptoms. He says unlike in a war zone, hiding a sickness could be hazardous to everyone.

MARK: No one wants to be a sick call ranger, OK? That is the wrong attitude to have in this environment.

FARMER: The entire pre-deployment schedule has been compressed. Before going to combat in recent years, soldiers would get some downtime, be with their families, but these troops only found out they'd deploy in the last month. Sergeant Luc Jiminez didn't know she was going until this week. She's deployed before, but now she's a new mother.

SERGEANT LUC JIMINEZ: (Laughter) Yeah.

FARMER: So you're leaving behind a 2-month-old baby? Wow.

JIMINEZ: I know.

FARMER: What's that going to be like?

JIMINEZ: It sucks. I'm just finding out today. They say you're possibly going to deploy. So it's like, wow.

FARMER: Soldiers say there haven't been quite as many volunteers to fill slots for this mission. There are a number of reasons, but as a very practical matter, it's unclear whether they will get hazard pay or get their paychecks tax-free as they do when deploying to the Middle East. That can nearly double a soldier's take-home pay. And they will be roughing it - tents and bug nets. Army planner Alex Willard says it's yet to be determined where all the camps will go, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, where bases had many comforts from home.

ALEX WILLARD: We'd have the Green Beans, which is the Army's equivalent of a Starbucks. You know, we'd have Pizza Hut and Burger King, and I think this will be the closest to an expeditionary army that we've had in 50 years, easily.

FARMER: Willard says he would never have guessed he'd be building hospitals during a deadly Ebola outbreak during his Army career. But is it any more unsettling than preparing to face RPGs and roadside bombs? Colonel Nik Guran says...

COLONEL NIK GURAN: Nope. I don't have to worry about IEDs. I mean, it's just that simple.

FARMER: Ebola may also be unseen, but Guran says he's confident it's a killer that can be stopped, even if that does mean squeezing into three pairs of rubber gloves. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer at Fort Campbell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.