Air National Guard pilots quit rather than take anthrax shots

9 men are first officers to reject national inoculation program

January 15, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Nine pilots from the 103rd Fighter Wing of the Connecticut Air National Guard -- about 25 percent of its combat-ready fighter force -- have resigned from flying duties rather than take the Pentagon's mandatory anthrax vaccinations, saying they have concerns about possible health effects and question its value as a defense against the biological weapon.

All nine of the citizen soldiers, mid-level officers and veterans of Desert Storm, Bosnia and the Iraqi "no-fly" zones, left the reserve unit during the past month, said unit members.

While several dozen sailors, airmen and soldiers have been disciplined for refusing to take the six-shot anthrax program unveiled in December 1997, the nine A-10 "Warthog" pilots at Bradley Air National Guard Base in Granby, Conn., are the first officers to decline.

"There are some questions as to the effectiveness of it," said Tom Rempfer, a 33-year-old captain and Air Force Academy graduate, who decided to resign rather than take the inoculations. "The Iraqis or others could come up with a different strain."

Rempfer, a 12-year veteran pilot who deployed to the Persian Gulf last winter, said the pilots talked with superior officers over the past six months.

But their many questions and concerns were never addressed by the Pentagon, said Rempfer, leaving the local commanders "ill-prepared to help their troops."

Members of the unit were ordered to take the first shots before the doses expired Feb. 23. "They had to use it or lose it," said Rempfer, noting that some members of the fighter wing were slated to deploy to the gulf soon.

"There was an ultimatum: Get the shot or get grounded," said Dom Possemato, a major with 17 years' experience, who said reserve pilots around the country are raising concerns. The 42-year-old pilot questions the effectiveness of the shots and worries about possible health effects.

"I'm willing to let the Iraqis take a potshot at me and put me in a grave. I'm not willing to let my country do that," said Possemato, who along with the others favors an optional vaccination program.

"We're falling on our swords to get the word out. This is not well-tested. This is not well-proven."

Officials of the 103rd Fighter Wing either refused to comment or referred calls to the wing's press spokesman, who was not available.

"We've had an incredibly successful program," said Jim Turner, a Pentagon spokesman, noting that even with the resignations of the Connecticut pilots only "a handful" of service members have refused to take the shots.

Thousands have complied

As of Tuesday, 166,223 military personnel had begun the inoculations, he said.

Turner said the anthrax vaccine, approved by the Food and Drug Administration and in use since the 1970s, has resulted in only minor health effects, mostly sore arms. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton have been taking the shots, which are given over 18 months.

Cohen ordered all 1.5 million active-duty service members and 1 million reservists to take the vaccinations, with the first troops slated to be those heading to the gulf and other combat areas. The program is expected to take six years.

The Pentagon called for the program to counter the threat of biological attacks. Iraq is among those states with a large cache of anthrax, an infectious disease whose spores can be produced in dry form for weapons. It can be fatal even in microscopic amounts.

But Rempfer and the other pilots said the anthrax vaccine was developed for ranchers who come into contact with anthrax through the skin, not by a massive cloud. And they said Iraq could develop another strain of the disease -- or even use another biological or chemical agent -- that may make the inoculations worthless.

Linked to gulf war syndrome

Some critics think the vaccine may be one of the links to gulf war illness -- the collection of maladies including headaches, dizziness and nausea -- that affected thousands of troops who served there.

But Pentagon officials have said two independent studies have discounted any link between gulf war illness and the shots. And officials at Fort Detrick, which helped develop the vaccine, say it will stand up to any strains of the threat because the immune response is based on a component that is common to all strains of anthrax.

"My main concern is safety," said Peter Smith, a 32-year-old pilot with the 103rd who also resigned. "There have been no long-term studies."

There has been some long-term study over the years involving the anthrax vaccine and other immunizations given to lab workers and millworkers. Recently, officials at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii started tracking physical reactions in 627 medical personnel who were given the anthrax shots.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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