Patriot Profiles: Fighting Ebola virus, ‘we weren’t sure what we were walking into’

This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

Rushing to a world crisis, nothing is black or white. For 1st Lt. David Andrew Tan, one of about 100 Marines called to Liberia in early October 2014, it was shades of gray, not knowing what they might face.

With Ebola fever spreading rapidly, it was time to call in the big guns to help. It was a fight for lives, a war on a different battleground — void of ear-shattering noise, blinding fire, and gagging smoke. They were going to meet a silent but deadly enemy.

Tan is a Marine Corps Aviation Intelligence Officer attached to Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa (SPMAGTF-CR-AF). They were the military portion of Operation United Assistance, the U.S. Department of Defense’s response to Ebola. As a mobile and self-sustaining task force, the task force is capable of responding to a range of crises.

Public Affairs Officer 1st Lt. Danielle Dixon noted, “The official request for forces dedicated to crisis response came in February 2013, and the Marine Corps established the force in March of the same year. As part of the Department of Defense’s continuing effort to improve its crisis response capability around the world, SPMAGTF-CR-AF developed into the force we see today.”

Tan was “thrilled and excited” to jump on board to go to Liberia and joined with other Marines in Spain, where the task force is based. “We just don’t send an air squadron out by itself,” said Tan. “We send a logistical element, combat engineers and infantry types. So it’s a complete system. No other service does it like the Marine Corps.”

Once he and his brothers were told to go, it took less than 40 hours to get there. Two days later, planes were flying missions in support of Operation United Assistance.

Their goal was to build Ebola treatment units. “It’s a way to isolate infected people and give them treatment while keeping them from infecting their families or infecting other people,” stated Tan. Spreading awareness was also part of the plan.

There’s always “that hitch,” well stated by former Secretary of State Colin Powell: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Tan confirmed, “We spend hours describing how we’re going to do things — talking through the possibilities and contingencies, and (then) something always happens. You have to jump in feet first and adapt, and come up with a good way to execute once you’re there and have information.

“We weren’t sure what we were walking into. Part of my job was telling the commander and informing the Marines about what threats were out there. In this case, the threat was Ebola.”

Growing up in Duluth, Ga., Tan was greatly influenced by his maternal grandfather, who served as a Marine in World War II. Tan was selected for the Naval Academy, and graduated majoring in English. He joined the Marine Corps because of its “distinct mission.”

“Everyone works together to get that rifleman into that last 300-500 yards where he can do his job and defeat the enemies of the United States. That ‘oneness’ of goal is refreshing, and I like it.”

Tan was picked for Marine Corps Intelligence School in Virginia Beach to study radar theory, aerodynamics, infrared guided missiles, and electronic warfare.

“That’s the baseline knowledge set aviation intelligence officers have to have in order to do their job,” said Tan. “You also have to know how to function in the world of intelligence, which has its own cycle and own way of working.” At the lieutenant level, he’s the intelligence guy for all members of a squadron — about 12 aircraft.

In a conflict like Afghanistan, the aircraft squadron commander relies on Tan. “I have the time and access to a variety of different systems we use in the intelligence community to inform and help the commander make decisions — help get him what he needs to know to be safe in his job. With Intel, everyone talks to everybody … (I) really get to see a lot of their world that way. It’s a great experience.”

Tan saw Liberia from an Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft that he described as faster than a conventional helicopter. Able to exploit his love for photography, he said, “I took pictures of landing zones or places we could go, so when other pilots went in, they would know what the place looked like. I compiled that into packets with other resources.”

The Marines lived in Monrovia, hardest hit by the disease. “The striking thing was — it was mostly business as usual, except there was literally a transformation In Liberian culture because of the disease. There were hand-washing stations — a little bleach or chlorine water — in buckets outside every building. Even regular houses had hand-washing stations, and people no longer shook hands. They had adapted to the presence of a very dangerous and potentially lethal disease in a lot of ways.”

In isolated parts of Liberia, Tan said, “People don’t necessarily comprehend germ theory or understand how things spread or even know what Ebola is. A non-governmental humanitarian group was chased out of a village they were helping, because the local shaman thought they were bringing a curse of Ebola on them.”

But generally, said Tan, “people are so nice.” Although instructed to limit interaction with the populace, it was impossible not to engage with the local drivers and security guards protecting the compound. “They were really positive, excited people.”

Tan had studied up on Liberia, and said that Liberians “see themselves as a close ally to the United States. They learn American history. They can name most of the states.”

Problems helping these people at risk stemmed from local funeral issues, where people would wash the body of the deceased and care for them in the traditional way. “Obviously, (Marines) did not partake in that, so that was a huge mitigating factor in keeping us from getting it,” said Tan.

On the Marines’ way out, there was a very extensive process to clean all their gear, spraying bleach water on everything. “The airplanes were washed down inside and out,” added Tan. The 100 troops were flown to Baumholder, Germany, in December 2014, and there designated into a 21-day “controlled monitoring,” before returning to Spain. (All graduated with “wellness,” Tan said.)

Tan didn’t mind confinement in the dorm-like setting. “There was a gym and Internet, and that’s all I needed to stay busy.”

Tan described what’s hardest for him: “I’m not an operator in the sense that I go out and grapple with the enemy. My job keeps me some distance away from all that. The real heroes are the guys on the ground, holding the line. I’m the guy left in the tent making sure everything is safe, watching the reports and keeping up with what’s going on.”

Marine 1st Lt. David A. Tan said responding to crises is “what we were built for.” His greatest reward is “seeing things done.”

“An organization like the Marine Corps has the potential to do so much, and it has the public investment of the United States — that’s a big deal. Being a useful person and contributing to that organization, making things better than they were when you got there, is important.

“America has been good to me. The Marine Corps has been good to me. I have very few things to complain about.”