Not your average deployment: Looking back on Ebola in Senegal

Senior Airmen Oscar Gomez-Villatoro and Joshua Coward, 319th Security Forces Squadron, pause for a photo during their deployment to Senegal. The two were part of an eight-person team that deployed from Grand Forks Air Force Base in response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. (Courtesy photo)

Senior Airmen Oscar Gomez-Villatoro and Joshua Coward, 319th Security Forces Squadron, pause for a photo during their deployment to Senegal. The two were part of an eight-person team that deployed from Grand Forks Air Force Base in response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. (Courtesy photo)

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Out of all of the service members sent to combat the Ebola crisis, only a percentage of those members were U.S. Air Force Security Forces members - and an even smaller percentage were from Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Staff Sgt. Alonzo Clark, 319th Security Forces Squadron security forces member, and seven other SF members here deployed to Senegal in November 2014 to aid in combating the Ebola crisis.

Clark and his team were attached to an aircraft as a fly-away security team (FAST). In other words, the team was responsible for the safety of the aircraft they occupied wherever they landed; they protected the aircraft from hostile fire or on-board security breaches.

FASTs are not an uncommon type of deployment for SF members, but this FAST presented new challenges to the Airmen involved, including harsher living conditions than what is normal for a deployment.

"We slept in tents with cots," Clark said. "A couple of days we got to eat some hot meals, but most of the time it was MREs. It wasn't our typical 'Air Force-type' living conditions."

Naturally, the team did have some reservations going in about the disease itself.
"It was a different set of goosebumps," said Senior Airman Oscar Gomez-Villatoro, 319th SFS alternate confinement NCO. "In Afghanistan, you can shoot back, but you can't really shoot a virus."

During their FAST training, they learned how the disease was actually transmitted and the importance of personal hygiene. They also learned how to wear the Tyvek suit - a piece of personal protective equipment that covers the body from head-to-toe and keeps out harmful materials.

"My mentality going in was, 'if it didn't come out of a bag, don't eat it,'" Clark said. "But through all of our training, we learned it's actually harder to transmit the disease than what was depicted in the media."

Another challenge the Airmen faced was learning to keep the aircraft secure without drawing their weapons.

"This was a humanitarian-type mission," Clark said. "We had to be delicate with the types of responses we used."

The team was able to venture off the makeshift base a couple of times and interact with the locals.

"We got to explore the local community, and everyone we met was friendly and loved us," said Senior Airman Eric Soles-Moore, 319th SFS member.

The members returned home safely in February 2015 untouched by Ebola, but changed forever from their experiences in the West African country.

"I've grown in a cultural awareness sense because on my other deployment, we didn't really get to associate with the local community," Soles-Moore said. "With this deployment, we worked side-by-side with their military and explored their community. We actually got to see their culture."

"It was very humbling," Clark said. "I got to see the Door of No Return on Goree Island and that's where they shipped slaves out of. I really gained a lot of humility just being able to see that side of life and be in those places."