WASHINGTON -- Pentagon officials continue to play down the exodus of military personnel over the anthrax vaccine, despite continued warnings by subordinates that the mandatory six-shot regimen is leading hundreds of National Guardsmen and reservists to resign or seek transfers.
According to interviews and documents obtained by The Sun, more than 50 percent of pilots in some Air National Guard squadrons are resigning or seeking nonflying jobs. Some documents describe units "struggling" to conduct missions and training with the "hurdle" of the anthrax vaccine, which some military personnel fear is neither safe nor effective.
Two weeks ago, top Pentagon officials assured Congress that the numbers were small and having little effect on retention or the ability of the military to carry out its missions.
"We do not see any impact that can be directly attributed to the anthrax program," Assistant Defense Secretary Charles Cragin told the House National Security subcommittee. "Concern about anthrax shots is not the determining factor behind a member's decision to withdraw from military service."
Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver Jr., head of the Air National Guard, also brushed aside reports of those refusing the shots. "So when I hear all these other figures about these mass resignations and whatnot, they're just not there," the general told the subcommittee.
But last October, Col. Walter F. Burns, commander of the Connecticut Air National Guard, wrote to Weaver and another senior officer, worried about the "flood of questions [and] concerns" about the vaccine and the "very real possibility" that he would lose one-third of his pilots in the 103rd Fighter Wing, leaving it at the lowest readiness rating.
"I also suspect the problem is not unique to the 103rd," he wrote. Soon after, the anthrax vaccine led to the loss of eight pilots -- about 25 percent of his combat-qualified A-10 "Warthog" pilots.
Since the Pentagon ordered the inoculations in early 1998, more than 340,000 of the 2.4 million men and women in the military have begun receiving the six-shot series, which is given over an 18-month period. About 27,000 of those in the Guard and Reserve -- about 10 percent of the force -- have started receiving the shots.
Pentagon officials say that only small numbers, 200 to 300, are refusing, though they say they leave the counting to local commands. Military sources claim the numbers could be nearly twice that high for Guard and Reserve pilots alone.
Last week, 22 of 48 pilots within a squadron of the Tennessee Air National Guard sent letters of resignation, all of them citing the vaccine and their worries that it is neither safe nor effective against the deadly biological agent.
Maj. Lamar Spencer, a spokesman for the Tennessee Air National Guard, confirmed that nearly half the C-141 cargo pilots in the 155th Airlift Squadron sought to transfer or resign. "Primarily because they're concerned about the anthrax vaccination," Spencer said, noting that the remaining pilots will pick up the slack.
"We lost 50 percent of our pilots; we can't possibly be ready," said Capt. Michael Pulsifer, one of the pilots leaving. "They can play all the word games they want."
Pentagon officials say the vaccine is safe and has been licensed by the Food and Drug Administration since 1970. It is effective against all strains of anthrax that could be used by a terrorist or rogue state, they say, arguing that those refusing to take it are falling prey to ignorance or misinformation from Web sites.
"We know the threat is real. We know we have to start protecting this force," Cragin, the assistant defense secretary for reserve affairs, said in an interview. He denied that pilot losses amounted to a growing problem and said that pilots are leaving for a number of reasons, including an increased number of missions.
When shown a memo from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., that listed one squadron losing at least 20 of its 65 pilots due to the vaccine, Cragin replied: "There's a commander who's got a challenge, no question about it."
The memo, written last summer by an officer at Travis, says 32 pilots are leaving one 58-pilot squadron, with 20 of them citing the vaccine.
As a result, the 301st squadron is "struggling to man missions and conduct training," reported Lt. Col. Frank Padilla, commander of the 312th Airlift Squadron. He urges pilots from other units to help fly the C-5 cargo planes so the unit can "stay afloat" and "rebuild" as "[we] race over the hurdle of the anthrax directive."
"This is a serious problem," said Maj. Ramona Savoie, one of the Travis pilots who is resigning. Savoie sharply criticized Pentagon officials for playing down the numbers.
"When you lose 32 pilots in one month, something's going on," she said. "Do they think the public is that stupid?"
Cragin called the anthrax concerns a "communications challenge" for the military, while some members of Congress are increasingly troubled by the loss of veteran pilots over the vaccine.
Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican who chairs the Government Reform Committee, will hold a hearing today on what he calls the "massive exodus" of Guard and Reserve members.
At Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, 23 of 58 C-5 cargo pilots are leaving from the 709th Reserve Squadron, with 29 pilots out of 60 in the 326th Reserve Squadron.
"There's never been an exodus like this before," said Maj. Jim Przygocki, a pilot in the 709th and one of those leaving. He said the base is increasingly relying on civilian contractors, such as Federal Express.
One pilot at Dover said that, as a result of the losses, the number of overseas missions has dropped from seven a month to four.
Maj. Jerry Herbel, a spokesman for the Air Force Reserve Command, confirmed the figures from Travis and Dover and conceded that some units would be going through several months of "turmoil" to train new pilots.
But Herbel denied that the pilot losses are leading to reduced missions within the command.
Pub Date: 10/12/99