WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military chiefs recommended to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday that he require all troops returning from Ebola response missions in West Africa be kept in supervised isolation for 21 days, the Pentagon said.
If approved by Hagel, the move would exceed precautions recommended by the Obama administration for civilians, although President Barack Obama said Tuesday the military's situation is different, in part because troops are not in West Africa by choice.
"We don't expect them to have similar rules and by definition they're working under more circumscribed circumstances," Obama said in a statement on the South Lawn.
Just over 1,000 U.S. troops are providing logistics and other support for the international Ebola response effort in Liberia and Senegal, and their numbers could grow to 3,900 under current plans. None are intended to be in contact with Ebola victims.
Administration officials say they don't want decisions affecting civilians involved in fighting Ebola to discourage volunteer medical professionals from going to Africa to help battle the disease, which has infected about 10,000 people and killed nearly half of them.
On Monday, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, directed a 21-day period of isolation for all Army soldiers returning from such missions, starting with a two-star general and 11 staff members who arrived at a base in Vicenza, Italy, after helping coordinate the U.S. response to Ebola in Liberia. They are being housed in a building on base and are not permitted to see their families.
The Joint Chiefs' recommendation to Hagel would apply that same standard to members of all the services, not just the Army.
Under current Pentagon policy, troops returning to their home bases from Ebola response missions are to undergo temperature checks twice a day for 21 days to ensure they are free of Ebola symptoms and may not travel widely. But they are not to be quarantined and kept from contact with others.
The recommendation now in Hagel's hands would go beyond the current policy by keeping troops in what the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, called "controlled supervised monitoring" in "quarantine-like" conditions for 21 days.
"The secretary shares the concerns by the chiefs about the safety and well-being not only of our troops but also of their families, and he appreciates the thoughtfulness and gravity of the recommendations" sent to him by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Kirby said, adding that he expects Hagel to make a decision "very soon."
Kirby declined to discuss the rationale presented in the service chiefs' recommendation. "They made plain their concerns," he said, but would not elaborate.
A military official familiar with the chiefs' recommendation said it was based on several factors, including safety concerns of military family members and the military communities from which troops are deploying to West Africa. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss specifics by name.
The official said the Joint Chiefs also framed their recommendation as a conservative approach that could be relaxed later if circumstances merit and noted that the largest group of Americans supporting the Ebola response effort in West Africa are military members with little medical expertise.
Kirby said Hagel supports Odierno's decision to isolate the Army team that returned to Italy, but the spokesman said Hagel reserves the right to declare a less restrictive policy going forward. He said Odierno's move was "in keeping with" the Dempsey recommendation, which already was working its way to Hagel.