Eight Soldiers from Joint Base Langley-Eustis' 688th Rapid Port Opening Element are completing their 21-day controlled monitoring period at Langley Air Force Base after returning from Liberia.
Two remaining Soldiers from the base are still in Liberia and will undergo similar monitoring at Fort Bliss, Texas, when they return in the coming days, officials said.
The Soldiers of the 688th Rapid Port Opening Element, referred to as an RPOE, were the first U.S. troops on the ground in Liberia's capital city, Monrovia, and paved the way for the flood of international medical assistance flowing into the country as a result of President Barack Obama's Sept. 16 announcement, making West Africa's Ebola epidemic and humanitarian crisis a top national security priority for the United States.
"When we arrived in country, there was nothing at Roberts International Airport except for a single forklift and a runway," said Maj. Matthew Rivera, commander of 688 RPOE, 833rd Transportation Battalion, 597th Transportation Brigade. "But by the time our team left, the airport had become a small self-contained city."
As their name implies, RPOEs are the first boots on the ground and set the stage for larger sustainment brigades that arrive later and build upon the operation. Without the initial infrastructure build and organization, air and sea ports could quickly become chaos with so many things happening at once.
"The mission was a massive logistical undertaking and the 688th RPOE was in the lead. By the time we left, we had the capability to download 10-15 civilian Boeing 747s and Air Force C-17s, C-130s and Marine NV-22 Osprey cargo aircraft per day," Rivera said. "This equates roughly to 150,000-250,000 pounds of medical aid, equipment, food and water each and every day."
The 688 RPOE is one of three elements belonging to Fort Eustis' 597th Transportation Brigade, and is designed to be the Army's 9-1-1 when it comes to getting military supplies and equipment anywhere in the world quickly.
"Whether it be a seaport or airport, we are the first in," Rivera sad. "We set up systems and coordinate efforts for the orderly flow of supplies and material from the source to staging yards before finally loading it onto waiting trucks for transport to where it's needed most."
The size and scope of the mission was not lost by those doing the work, according to Rivera.
"This was my first deployment and it was a big culture shock for me," said Spc. Michael Gill, a New Braunfels, Texas, native. "I feel very good about what we did and I'm proud to have been over there."
Gill, a cargo specialist with three years in the Army, spoke of long hours and working at dizzying speed to get the aircraft unloaded in order to prevent cargo from log jamming in the sort yards.
But it was Mother Nature that proved to be the greatest obstacle.
"For us, I think the biggest challenge was the weather," Gill said. "It would start out hot in the morning with 85-to-95-degree weather, and by afternoon, it was pouring rain nearly every day. But it's a part of the job; you just have to push through it."
Rivera drew on his travels and 12 years of military experience to describe the weather dilemma.
"I've lived in Hawaii and other places with significant rainfall, but I've never seen anything like the monsoon season in Liberia," Rivera said. "The humidity was insane -- we were constantly wet, but it never slowed the mission."
Sgt. Jose Espinosa, a veteran transportation management coordinator with a deployment to Afghanistan already under his belt, talked about the deployment as if it was just another day at the office.
"I'm from Puerto Rico; I like warm weather," Espinosa said.
Rivera and Espinosa were able to contrast their West Africa deployment with previous combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"In Liberia, people are dying from a dreadful disease. We would hear of bodies in wheelbarrows in front of treatment centers and most of the Liberians we encountered knew of someone who had died of the disease," Rivera said. "There is an intense energy in the Liberian people, one which carried over to us and in every aspect of our mission -- they knew we were there to help and make things better."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel signed a memo Oct. 29, implementing a regimented program of 21 days of controlled, supervised monitoring for all troops returning from duties in support of Operation United Assistance in West Africa.
The 688th RPOE's scheduled 21-day controlled monitoring period will end Dec. 4, just in time for them to take leave before heading home for the holidays.
Soldiers expressed their understanding for the need for the 21-day controlled monitoring period, and are finding ways of making time pass more quickly at the Langley Transit Center.
For Espinosa, staying at Langley's Transit Center was a welcome change from the hectic pace of the last few months.
"This place is awesome, and they've done a great job," Espinosa said. "We have everything we need."
Rivera said he prefers to spend his time reading books, watching movies, and running more than five miles per day on the gym equipment put in place by the 633rd Air Base Wing.
For Gill, the 21-day controlled monitoring is just another step closer to getting home for the holidays.
"There are slow times and it can get a little boring here, but it is important and I totally understand why we have to do it. We want to be healthy for when we get back to our families -- it's no biggie."