Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

When we arrive at the entrance gate to Barclay Training Center, I reach out my hand to the soldier who greets us.

Oh no. Don’t give me no Ebola, he says.

I’m in Monrovia, Liberia, and touching of any kind is not allowed. The usual friendly gestures of hugs and handshakes are strictly forbidden in this West African nation that has been in the grip of an Ebola outbreak for months.

I chose to spend my winter break working rather than resting. I turned in grades then flew to Texas to break the news to my parents that I’d be leaving for Liberia on December 29.

I traveled with writer Brian Castner. We’d met at the Combat Paper: Words Made Flesh conference at Allegheny, where he’d spoken last September. I’d been raised in the Army and Brian had served in the Air Force as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in Iraq. Brian proposed that we cover the actions of the 101st Airborne, whose soldiers had fought insurgents in Iraq. The president had now tasked them with fighting a virus.

The virus is transmitted between humans by direct contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “When an infection occurs in humans, the virus can be spread to others through direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose, or mouth) with blood or body fluids (including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola.”

The Army’s mission was to build Ebola Treatment Units and train healthcare workers. They would have no contact with Ebola patients. In Monrovia, they were confined to a walled compound where they would wander to one gate, called Redemption Gate, and look at the ocean. Redemption references the beach slightly north of the soldiers’ view. In 1980, Samuel Doe claimed power in a coup and had the previous government’s ministers executed on the beach.

As one soldier gazed west to the horizon and a faraway home, he called the ocean view a slice of heaven.

It was a look-but-don’t-touch lifestyle.

Earlier that day, Brian and I had gone to West Point, which Brian described as a shantytown. It sits on a .15-square-mile peninsula with 80,000 residents, the majority children. In August, when Ebola was rampant, the government placed West Point under quarantine and enforced it with police and barbed wire.

As we walked the beach, our host kept reminding us to watch our step. Feces. Feces.

The U.S. soldiers haven’t been to West Point.

As I photographed, children swarmed around me. They pressed in close for a view of me and pressed into my camera’s viewfinder.

I’ve been in such situations many times. In the past, I would have worried about theft or assault or an ambush. This time I worried about sweat: the children who grabbed my sweaty arms with their sweaty hands. I became acutely aware of unconscious habits, such as rubbing my eyes as I wiped sweat from my brow.

Brian noted that Ebola was a new type of threat for him, too. With a bomb, he’d know his fate instantly: the bomb blew or it didn’t. With Ebola, it can take up to 21 days to manifest symptoms of the disease after exposure to the virus. It’s a silent bomb.

I’d notified the Student Health Center of my travel plans before I left and again when I returned. A fellow photojournalist warned me to be prepared for a frosty reception. Even close friends steer clear when you return, he told me.

Upon arrival in the U.S., I began my 21-day self-monitoring protocol. The women at the Pennsylvania Department of Health are on the ball. Someone calls me each morning to get my twice-daily temperature readings. She inquires if I have any symptoms. No fever. No symptoms.

I had decided I would continue the precautions and practices Brian and I had exercised in Liberia. No contact. Smiles and waves only. Or tapping elbows instead of hugs and high-fives.

My friend, a fellow journalist, who’d lived and worked in West Africa, met me at the airport. He is tall with a deep voice made for radio. Welcome home, he said, and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, tucking me in close. I chafed, briefly. It was a shock to be embraced. It was also the best welcome home. I spent the weekend with my friends. We shared meals and they listened to my stories. I realized how blessed I am to have friends who will always embrace me.

When I returned to Allegheny, a student spotted me and came running across the Campus Center lobby. Professor Hatch. I didn’t have time to put up my arms. She ran right into me and wrapped me an exuberant hug.

When I heard you were in Africa, I was afraid you weren’t coming back. If you weren’t coming back, I wasn’t coming back.

She smiled and questions poured out of her. I smiled. Happy for the hug and the stream of questions.

She’s a journalist, all right.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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