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Project January 4, 2015

The 101st Airborne, Fighting Ebola in Liberia

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Spc. Kyle Salchow, from Nixa, Mo., Spc. Eric Warford, from Denver, Co., and Staff Sgt. Jose Melendez from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, wait for a bus ride off Barclay Training Center in Monrovia. These soldiers are part of the 2,500 U.S. troops in Operation United Assistance that is building Emergency Treatment Units and training local health care workers in Liberia. They are among the 20 percent of the force that is deploying home at the beginning of January 2015. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/ZUMA Press. Liberia, 2014.

The 101st Airborne has deployed six times in the last 13 years. It was the first conventional unit sent to Afghanistan after 9/11, and General David Petraeus led them into Mosul, Iraq during the 2003 invasion. As the years went on, they participated in some of the worst of the fighting in both theaters. Then, in November, the 101st deployed a seventh time—to fight Ebola instead of jihadists.

How do soldiers transition from occupiers to relief workers? How is fighting a disease different from fighting an ideology? They are building hospitals, roads, and ports for USAID. They are training hospital workers and delivering supplies. The African jungle could not be more dissimilar from the deserts of Iraq or mountains of Afghanistan, but an invisible killer still hangs over the effort, a virus substituted for roadside bombs.

For some, this work is a chance at redemption. Major General Gary Volesky, the commander of the 101st, has said that this is the first time in his career that local citizens are happy to see him everywhere he goes. For others, especially family members, it is a time of anxiety; bullets and bombs are well-understood, but a disease can be unknowingly brought home.

Writer Brian Castner and photojournalist Cheryl Hatch travel to Liberia to tell the story of the men and women of the 101st Airborne, as they engage in a new kind of campaign.

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