Fort Carson soldiers isolated after Ebola mission in Africa

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Photo: 615 Engineering Company Liberia
Soldiers with Fort Carson's 615th Engineering Co. grading the road outside an Ebola treatment center near Buchanan, Liberia, in December.

In the fight against Ebola, even a road is a weapon. Just ask a group of 146 soldiers from Fort Carson’s 615th Engineering Co. With shovels in hand, they have helped pave the way -- literally -- so medical supplies can get to clinics in Liberia.

One hundred of the soldiers returned to the United States late last week following a two-month mission. Nearly 3,500 people have died from the disease Liberia -- more than any other place in the world in the current epidemic.

“We took a lot of precautions going in,” said Capt. Ryan Horton, who commanded the company. "We even bumped elbows instead of shaking hands with each other."

Around the world, more than 20,000 Ebola cases have been confirmed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All except for a handful of the cases are confined to West Africa -- Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. More than 8,150 deaths have been tallied in those countries.

In the United States, four well-publicized cases have been confirmed and one death.

Months into the fight against the disease, efforts appear to be working. In Liberia, infection rates have dropped dramatically in recent weeks, according to health experts, and schools in the country may open soon.

The United States is recalling many of the 2,400 troops it sent to the country, including the soldiers with Fort Carson’s 615th Engineering Co.

When the first 100 returned to U.S. soil on Friday, they did not go directly to Colorado Springs. Instead, they're in isolation for 21 days at Joint Base Lewis–McChord in Washington state, as a precaution. A spokesman at the base says the returned soldiers are showing no adverse symptoms.

In Liberia the company was tasked with several construction projects, including extensive repairs on the road leading out of one of the country’s largest ports -- Buchanan. Working the 1.5-mile stretch was arduous, said Sgt. Maurice Watford, who led a company squad.

“It was like 90 degrees with a heat index of 100,” he said. “So, you know, it was very humid. I would compare it to, like, going to Georgia near the Savannah. It was very hot.”

Potholes in the road were so big that soldiers described them as “craters,” big enough to swallow a small car.

“It’s not your standard pothole,” Horton said. “They were 3 to 5 feet deep and took up three-quarters of the road."

The team worked to fill the potholes quickly, helping relieve long traffic jams that delayed people en route to an Ebola clinic. The road repair also hastened the movement of medical supplies and personnel to key areas in Liberia.