U.S. troops fighting to contain the Ebola outbreak in Liberia have seen a "significant decrease" in new cases, the top Army general on the ground there said.
On Thursday, there were nine new confirmed cases and 30 possible or suspected cases, compared with 52 confirmed and 80 possible or suspected cases in mid-September, said Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, commander of Joint Forces Command-United Assistance and the 101st Airborne Division.
"We don't want to declare victory and get complacent," Volesky said. "We want to keep the momentum going."
The top military commander in Africa shared a similar sentiment Wednesday during a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon.
"We're in a good position now. The trend lines are all moving in the right direction," said Gen. David Rodriguez, commanding general of U.S. Africa Command. "While it is too early to declare success, Liberia has made encouraging advances in containing the spread of Ebola."
Rodriguez also said the current force of about 2,900 troops is probably the peak, and the entire force may complete the mission and leave West Africa as early as this summer.
Health officials say the rate of new Ebola infections in Liberia has been declining for several weeks. But the virus continues to spread in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Mali, where there is no major U.S. military support effort.
Volesky, who spoke by phone Thursday from Liberia with Army Times, said he remains cautiously optimistic about the shrinking number of new Ebola cases.
"This virus, we've just got to keep the hammer on it," he said.
U.S. military leaders will have a "decision point" in January, Volesky said.
"We're making an assessment with AFRICOM to look at the conditions on the ground and the needs, and we'll go forward from there," he said. "If the momentum is going in the right direction, and [they] don't need us to go anywhere else, we'll look at adjusting the force to get to the right capability and the right size."
Right now there are about 2,500 U.S. troops in Liberia, including about 1,200 from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and about 250 in Senegal.
"This is the first country I've been in 14 years where they've been happy to see me everywhere I've been," Volesky said. "Everywhere I go in the country, without exception, and I've been to all corners of the compass, everyone is happy to see us. What the Department of Defense brings to the fight is speed, flexibility and confidence."
In Liberia, the U.S. military is supporting the Liberian government and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The joint forces command includes medical, sustainment, logistics and engineer soldiers. It also has an aviation task force from the 1st Armored Division that deployed with UH-60 Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks.
"Without them, we couldn't get anywhere," Volesky said. "We are flying helicopters every minute of every day."
And the military brought with it "some unique capabilities to fill gaps USAID and the government of Liberia didn't have," Volesky said.
This includes overseeing the building and sustainment of 17 Ebola treatment units, he said. Seven are already done, and the rest should be completed by the end of December, Volesky said.
The plan is to have one treatment unit in each county so an infected person, especially one from a rural area, doesn't have to walk long distances to reach medical care, he said.
"Locate, isolate and contain," Volesky said. "You want to have an ETU that's local where you can treat people."
The military also has stood up seven labs to more quickly and efficiently test blood samples for Ebola, Volesky said. Two are run by the Navy, four by the Army, and one by the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
These labs can determine whether a patient has Ebola within hours instead of days, and each lab can test about 80 samples a day, he said.
For example, Volesky said, he recently visited a clinic that was able to clear 40 patients from its triage center because the lab was able to quickly confirm that they did not have Ebola.
"The labs have been a big deal," he said. "We want to continue the progress of that."
Just as with the Ebola treatment units, the plan is to place these labs where the people have access to them, Volesky said.
"We're putting in the last two in some pretty remote areas," he said.
Officials also are trying to network the treatment units with the labs so they can work together more efficiently, Volesky said.
Another key capability that's coming soon is helicopters from the United Nations Mission for Emergency Ebola Response, he said. These aircraft will be able to fly medical professionals into hot spots and deliver blood samples from outlying regions to the labs.
In everything it has done so far, the military is making sure the Liberians or a nongovernmental agency can fill the gaps in the long-run.
This includes building Ebola treatment units alongside the Liberian armed forces so they can build more, if needed, in the future. Military medical personnel are training local health care providers so that they can in turn train others.
"We don't want to put something in that when we leave will collapse," Volesky said.
Volesky said he is proud that his soldiers and those serving in the Liberia were able to build a team in such a short amount of time.
When the 101st Airborne was notified about the West Africa mission, "the division had only been back from Afghanistan seven months, and I'd only been in command three months, so we were still building the team," Volesky said.
"If you look at what the 101st is doing right now, I've got a brigade that's just arrived in Afghanistan and two more that will follow in the next few months," he said. "I just had two brigades return from Afghanistan, and the division headquarters and sustainment brigade are in West Africa. That's how agile your Army is today to be able to meet the needs of our nation."
The 101st Airborne's 1st Brigade Combat Team arrived in Afghanistan in late November, and they will be joined early next year by 3rd BCT and the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade.
Meanwhile, the division's 2nd BCT and 159th CAB just returned from Afghanistan.
"Our division is only one of 10 that is doing the exact same thing every single day," Volesky said.
Staff writer Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.