Anthrax vaccine divides military; Reservists who refuse face lesser penalties; readiness drop feared

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- At least a dozen Marines in California and 30 Air Force Reserve pilots in Washington state have something in common: They refused to take the Pentagon's mandatory anthrax vaccine, calling it unsafe and ineffective.

But while the active-duty Marines are being court-martialed and face strong disciplinary action, the National Guard and Reserve pilots are merely taking the summer off from their flying duties, according to interviews with officers around the country.

Since they are not on active duty, the Guard and Reserve pilots refusing the shots cannot be court-martialed, officials said. But some military lawyers disagree, saying that prosecutions apparently were barred by a "policy decision."

Instead, the citizen soldiers are being grounded, transferred to desk jobs or allowed months to consider whether to take the six-shot series.

"We have a luxury over the guys getting court-martialed because we can quit," said one pilot in the 97th Airlift Squadron at McChord Air Force Base outside Tacoma, Wash., where more than half the squadron is not reporting this summer. "We're reservists, there's nothing they can do."

Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer who represents some of the Marines in California, says the citizen soldiers declining the vaccine tend to be officers and pilots, who are more experienced and more costly to train than the young Marines and other enlistees who refused the vaccine. National Guard and Reserve pilots fly the majority of the refueling and cargo aircraft in the Air Force.

A double standard?

"One can postulate that there's a double standard between rank and between active duty and reserves," said Zaid, who will represent one of the Marines this week during a court-martial hearing at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in California.

Last month, five other Marines represented by Zaid were court-martialed, sentenced to a month in the brig and given dishonorable discharges.

The Pentagon does not keep statistics on related punishments or refusals to take the vaccine, which has been given to 330,000 military personnel. Jim Turner, a Pentagon spokesman, said military officials stopped counting last year after about 100 had refused because the number was a "moving target," since some soldiers could refuse and then later agree to take the shots.

Internal Air Force documents obtained by The Sun show the service is still struggling with how to handle the growing problem.

One slide prepared in April for a briefing of Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters and Gen. Michael Ryan, the chief of staff, asked the questions: "Are refusals creating a problem? How to track? If we track, what will we do with the info? Does anthrax vaccination cause members to separate voluntarily? How to verify?"

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen plans to have all 2.4 million active-duty and Reserve personnel vaccinated by 2003 as a defense against anthrax, a fatal bacterium found in animals that experts say is the biological weapon most likely to be used by terrorists or rogue states.

The Pentagon has asserted that the vaccine is safe, noting that it has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and in use since 1970. It is effective against all known anthrax strains, officials said. Pentagon leaders, including Cohen, have rolled up their sleeves to take the shots.

Health concerns

But those refusing the vaccine say fellow soldiers have become sick after taking the shots.

They also have doubts about the sole manufacturer of the vaccine, Bioport Corp. of Lansing, Mich., which has experienced financial and manufacturing problems. Moreover, they say that no long-term tests have been performed to determine whether there are any adverse health effects from the vaccine.

Many of those refusing point to a series of military medical problems over the years, ranging from the radiation effects of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s to the still-unexplained Persian Gulf syndrome that continues to trouble thousands of veterans.

They fear that the anthrax vaccine could be added to the list and are asking the Pentagon to postpone the shots or make them voluntary.

Nearly all the Guard and Reserve pilots also fly for commercial airlines and are concerned that illness might affect their civilian careers.

"The more I learn about [the anthrax vaccine], the more concerned I become," said one Reserve pilot at the 97th Airlift Squadron at McChord, noting that four female pilots had adverse reactions after taking the shot, including one who broke out in hives.

Another pilot said that the anthrax vaccine was the military's first attempt to inoculate against a chemical or biological threat and that he fears more such vaccines will follow. "I do not want to be a walking, talking bag of chemicals," said the pilot.

The squadron was told by its commander to begin taking the shots last month, but 30 of the squadron's 58 pilots, who fly the C-141 Starlifter cargo plane, refused and were allowed not to report for duty.

"We're all taking the summer off, hoping the situation will resolve itself," said the pilot, who has more than 10 years of experience and flew cargo in support of the Kosovo mission.

At least 21 pilots in two other Reserve squadrons at the base are refusing to take the vaccine, according to a pilot in the 97th.

Pentagon policy

Lt. Col. Chris Golob, commander of the 97th, said he is allowing the pilots to take the time off while he prepares more educational material on the vaccine, trying to combat what he calls the "rumors" that are leading to the refusals.

"We were shortsighted in not getting information out to people," he said. "I think the people need to know what's going on."

Golob said he is uncertain when the pilots will be ordered to take the vaccine.

"That will come from above, if not my wing commander, then the Air Force," he said.

Pentagon policy requires the pilots to submit to the shots or risk grounding. Without the vaccine, pilots and soldiers cannot fly or deploy to such hot spots as the Korean peninsula or the Persian Gulf.

In the meantime, Golob said, the other pilots in the squadron "will end up flying a little bit longer, a little bit harder" to make up for their absent colleagues. The squadron has five trips this month, including flights to Japan and Australia.

Readiness issues

Pentagon officials say the number of refusals is not large enough to hamper military operations or the readiness of the force to respond to an international incident.

"They're in very small groups," said a senior Air Force official. "It isn't having a big impact on operations yet."

But one pilot at the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana National Guard said the combat readiness of his F-16 squadron has been officially reported as degraded as a result of a decision by wing commanders last month to postpone the vaccination.

"If there's a crisis, there could be a problem," he said, because Pentagon policy would not permit their deployment without the vaccinations.

The fighter wing has brought in experts to try to allay concerns. But of the estimated 35 fighter pilots in his squadron, the pilot said, upward of 25 will refuse the vaccine. The Air Force has asked the fighter wing to come up with a plan for vaccinations by December, said the pilot, because it is scheduled to deploy to the Persian Gulf next year.

"I'm still hopeful the Air Force will make it a voluntary shot," said the pilot. "If not, they're going to have a huge readiness problem."

Another test for the vaccine will come in two weeks at the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, Wis., where about one-third of the 30 F-16 pilots are expected to refuse the vaccine, said Maj. Randy Psyk, one of two fighter pilots grounded by commanders for taking his concerns to the news media.

"I don't believe it's safe, and I'm not willing to take the risk," he said, echoing concerns expressed by dozens of Guard and Reserve pilots from Connecticut, Michigan, Delaware and California who are resigning or grounding themselves rather than take the shots.

Pentagon officials said adverse reactions to the vaccine have been minuscule, with 104 soldiers experiencing side effects such as soreness, headaches and fever -- and all have recovered. Of that number, only 14 were hospitalized or lost a day of duty.

"No scientific data show that this is anything but safe," said a senior Air Force official. "It's up to us to protect our individuals, and part of that protection is to inoculate them against things that can happen to them. You can make [anthrax] in a bathtub."

Prompted by complaints that there have been no long-term health studies of the vaccine, the Pentagon is beginning such an effort. A team comprising officials from the Defense Department, the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a university will meet this month to design the study. The study is expected to take 10 years or more, officials said.

Congressional hearing

Meanwhile, Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who chairs the National Security subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee, will conduct a hearing July 21 to look at the adverse health reactions to the shots, as well as the effect of the vaccine on soldier retention and morale.

Shays said he was told by a citizen-soldier pilot that his superiors balked when he tried to quit because of the anthrax vaccine, suggesting a "more acceptable reason" in his resignation papers.

"Starting with a Connecticut Air National Guard squadron, which lost a third of its experienced pilots, the impact of the mandatory anthrax vaccine program on Guard and Reserve units could be devastating," Shays said.

"But the Pentagon seems determined to ignore or hide the growing unease among increasingly important elements of our national defense force."

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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