WASHINGTON -- More than one-quarter of the pilots in a California Air Force Reserve squadron are choosing to quit rather than take the Pentagon's mandatory anthrax vaccine, the latest protest in a service-wide revolt that could threaten the readiness of Guard and Reserve air squadrons.
The loss of at least 11 cargo and refueling pilots at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco follows the resignations last month of eight Air National Guard combat pilots in Connecticut who also refused to take the vaccine. Pilots from other units at Travis and at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey are also considering stepping down.
They are part of a worrisome trend that, if it continues, could eventually impair U.S. military operations, Air Force sources and officials say.
Officials said 11 of the 40 pilots from the 79th Air Refueling Squadron at Travis are seeking transfers to desk jobs or retirements. But pilots say that at least 18 will eventually leave.
The squadron of KC-10 cargo and refueling planes is scheduled to head to the Persian Gulf in late March to support the "no-fly" operation in southern Iraq. Though Travis officials say the squadron will still deploy, sources say the losses will erode its combat-readiness and require pilots from other units to fill the gaps.
The latest group of rebellious Guard and Reserve members are among dozens of officers who have raised fears about the long-term health effects of the anthrax vaccine and have questioned whether it is effective. Dozens more active-duty enlistees have refused to take the vaccine and have faced disciplinary action.
"This thing is destroying morale within this squadron, within other squadrons," said one KC-10 pilot with the 79th who has refused the shot. "I've been in over 14 years, and I've never seen anything like this."
Fellow Reserve aviators at the Travis base, specifically C-5 cargo plane pilots, will resign in protest, as will other pilots at McGuire, said the pilot, who asked not to be identified. In January, eight A-10 pilots from the 103rd Fighter Wing of the Connecticut Air National Guard -- one-quarter of the unit's combat strength -- resigned rather than take the vaccine.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has ordered all 2.4 million active-duty and reserve forces to take the six-shot vaccine by 2003, citing the possibility of an attack on troops with a cloud of anthrax, a deadly biological weapon. The first in line are troops being sent to the hot spots of Korea and the Persian Gulf.
Top Pentagon officials, including Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are taking the vaccine themselves.
Maj. Robin Grantham, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Reserve Command, said 11 pilots from the 79th Air Refueling Squadron requested new assignments or retirement in the past week, the most ever to resign at one time.
Only three or four of them, Grantham said, specifically cited the anthrax vaccine as their reason for leaving. The seven or eight others said the main reason was the many overseas missions in recent years, though she said that "anthrax was listed among the reasons."
But the KC-10 pilot and other sources denied that the aviators are leaving for any reasons other than the vaccine and said at least 18 are expected to step down.
The 79th squadron will still be able to support the Iraq operation beginning in late March, said Lt. Col. Jim Leli, the squadron's commander. Leli conceded that the combat readiness of his squadron could be hurt by the losses, depending on when the pilots leave and when replacements arrive.
The refusal of the KC-10 pilots to take the shots came despite a personal appeal from Maj. Gen. Wallace W. Whaley, commander of the 4th Air Force at March Air Force Base in California, who visited Travis last week with military doctors and nurses. Besides answering questions, Whaley used the occasion to submit to his own first anthrax vaccination.
"The threat of anthrax exposure is real, the disease is fatal and the vaccine is FDA approved, effective and safe," the general told them, according to a statement from his office. "My goal is to provide maximum protection for the individual while accomplishing the mission."
Though the Pentagon points out that the vaccine has been in use since 1970, the pilots and other critics complain that there have been no long-term studies of the health consequences.
Moreover, those wary of the vaccine note that 150,000 of the 500,000 soldiers who served in the gulf received the shots. Some suspect that the shots may be associated with gulf war illness, the collection of mysterious ailments that afflict thousands of veterans. But Pentagon officials say two studies found no such evidence.
Some of those rejecting the vaccine argue that America's enemies may target service members with another biological or chemical weapon once they are inoculated against anthrax.
"The reservists started looking into this and did not like what they saw," said the KC-10 pilot. "We're being treated like guinea pigs. Why would anybody want to stay in?"
The pilot and others are calling for the vaccine program to be postponed and reviewed by an independent group.
"I want to stay in the reserves; I want to fly," the pilot said. "But if [it means taking the vaccine], and possible health problems, there is no choice."
Meanwhile, the C-5 pilots at Travis are also raising questions about the vaccine, said Capt. Tania Daniels, a spokeswoman for the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis.
"We have heard some concerns; no actions have been taken by any [pilots]," Daniels said, adding that squadron officials are trying to address the pilots' specific questions.
Unlike active-duty military personnel, who could face disciplinary action for not taking the vaccine, Guard and Reserve pilots can simply resign. And they do so at a stiff price for the Pentagon.
Most of the Air Force's refueling planes are piloted by these citizen-soldiers: 55 percent of the KC-10s and KC-135s and 64 percent of the C-130 cargo planes. Twenty-seven percent of the C-5s have Guard and Reserve pilots.
Pentagon officials are concerned about the resignations and retirements and are redoubling efforts to stem the loss of pilots. An education plan, complete with a new pamphlet, is in the works, along with more detailed briefings for commanders on how to address concerns about the vaccine.
Still, one Pentagon official said, the vaccine may be another "straw" for younger pilots who are trying to juggle the increasing demands of a military job as well as civilian work and family responsibilities and may be looking to leave the service for better-paying, more stationary jobs.
"The anthrax straw is one more straw in a series of straws, and we're facing the camel's back," he said.
Pub Date: 2/27/99