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Cpl. James Lembke, a West Seneca, N.Y., native and a heavy equipment operator for the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 62nd Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, tells a Liberian worker to load four containers onto the non-tactical vehicles headed to the staging area in Buchanan, in support of Operation United Assistance, Joint Forces Command ? United Assistance, at the National Police Training Academy, Paynesville, Liberia.

Cpl. James Lembke, a West Seneca, N.Y., native and a heavy equipment operator for the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 62nd Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, tells a Liberian worker to load four containers onto the non-tactical vehicles headed to the staging area in Buchanan, in support of Operation United Assistance, Joint Forces Command ? United Assistance, at the National Police Training Academy, Paynesville, Liberia. (Ange Desinor/U.S. Army)

Cpl. James Lembke, a West Seneca, N.Y., native and a heavy equipment operator for the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 62nd Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, tells a Liberian worker to load four containers onto the non-tactical vehicles headed to the staging area in Buchanan, in support of Operation United Assistance, Joint Forces Command ? United Assistance, at the National Police Training Academy, Paynesville, Liberia.

Cpl. James Lembke, a West Seneca, N.Y., native and a heavy equipment operator for the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 62nd Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, tells a Liberian worker to load four containers onto the non-tactical vehicles headed to the staging area in Buchanan, in support of Operation United Assistance, Joint Forces Command ? United Assistance, at the National Police Training Academy, Paynesville, Liberia. (Ange Desinor/U.S. Army)

Cpl. James Lembke, left, a heavy equipment operator for the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 62nd Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, briefs 1st Lt. Priscilla Ro, center, a unit movement officer, on the number of containers going on each of the non-tactical vehicles in support of Operation United Assistance, at the National Police Training Academy, Paynesville, Liberia, Jan. 15, 2015. Operation United Assistance is a Department of Defense operation in Liberia to provide support to U.S. Agency for International Development-led efforts to contain the Ebola virus outbreak in western Africa.

Cpl. James Lembke, left, a heavy equipment operator for the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 62nd Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, briefs 1st Lt. Priscilla Ro, center, a unit movement officer, on the number of containers going on each of the non-tactical vehicles in support of Operation United Assistance, at the National Police Training Academy, Paynesville, Liberia, Jan. 15, 2015. Operation United Assistance is a Department of Defense operation in Liberia to provide support to U.S. Agency for International Development-led efforts to contain the Ebola virus outbreak in western Africa. (Ange Desinor/U.S. Army)

NAPLES, Italy — U.S. troops in West Africa turned over their final Ebola treatment center Tuesday and could begin returning home in early February, pending a final decision by U.S. officials.

U.S. officials indicated last month they might send some DOD personnel to another country in the region as infection rates fell in Liberia and continued rising elsewhere. Case numbers still remain high in Sierra Leone and Guinea, but infection rates have fallen in recent weeks, a hopeful sign the region may be turning a corner. The neighboring country of Mali was declared Ebola-free after going 42 days without an infection, another victory for the area.

Task force members handed over the last of 10 Ebola treatment centers under its mandate on Tuesday, this one in the village of Barclayville in the southeast corner of Liberia.

Members finished their other primary mission, training health care workers, at the end of December, said task force spokesman Lt. Col. Brian DeSantis. Some units are still spinning blood samples for Ebola detection, but even that role has been increasingly assumed by other organizations.

The relief charity World Food Programme and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees the entire American response in West Africa, have assumed the military’s logistics role, meanwhile.

“They were there as a bridging solution because of what the military can bring,” Lt. Col. Mark Cheadle, spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, said of the task force. “Since they’ve been there, USAID has worked very hard, and they’re close to the point where they can assume the mission themselves.”

With less to do, military engineers recently repaved a road in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, that had deteriorated with the movement of military supplies.

“Really, what we’re looking at right now is whether this manpower is going to be needed somewhere else,” DeSantis said.

One remaining question is whether the Liberian government can sustain treatment centers after the military’s departure, especially if infection rates rise again.

Announced in September when infection rates were high, Operation United Assistance was meant to bolster a fledgling international response to the outbreak by providing the logistics and engineering support otherwise unavailable in the region.

But infection rates began slowing in late October, according to the WHO, before the military had opened its first treatment center in Monrovia. A plan to spend as much as $1 billion and deploy as many as 3,000 troops to build 17 treatment centers quickly began to change.

The military ultimately built, or contracted, 10 treatment centers, with USAID taking on another five. The final seven centers were built with 50 beds instead of 100, an acknowledgment of the declining need. Some centers have yet to see a single patient, DeSantis said.

As of Jan. 8, the Department of Defense had spent less than $350 million, with troop levels reaching a high point of roughly 2,300. Scores of DOD contractors and civilians have also been part of the mission.

Reasons behind the falling infection rates are still unclear. DeSantis argues the rates remain unpredictable.

“It’s relatively easy now to look at it and say, ‘Was it completely necessary given where we are now?’ But what I would argue is that, if you look at the history of this epidemic, there were times where it dipped and then came back.”

Despite the lower infection risk, troops returning from the country will still be quarantined, DeSantis said.

The task force, anchored by the Army’s 101st Airborne headquarters, already returned 450 troops last month.

The Minnesota National Guard’s 34th Infantry Division is slated to deploy roughly 300 members of its headquarters battalion to Liberia next month to replace the 101st. That deployment has already been pared from original plans, which called for 700 troops.

beardsley.steven@stripes.com Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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