Anthrax issue clouds vaccine for Pentagon

Fearing risk, some in U.S. service refuse, even retire over, shots

January 30, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Top Pentagon officials and military officers stepped before cameras last week, rolled up their sleeves and received their anthrax vaccines.

In a nearby room, a group of lower-ranking officers, fearful that the shots are both risky and ineffective, were devising a way to try to postpone the mandatory vaccines.

The competing scenes at the Reserve Officers Association's midwinter conference here represent a growing divide between the Defense Department and the troops who have been ordered to take the six-shot vaccine to protect against the risk that Iraq or another enemy might unleash a cloud of anthrax, a deadly biological agent.

Pentagon officials argue that the vaccine has proved safe and effective for nearly three decades. Nevertheless, more and more service members -- including a growing number of officers -- are refusing to take the shots.

Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog arm, is investigating whether the Pentagon can support its claims of safety and efficacy. A House subcommittee is preparing to hold hearings on both the vaccine and the rising opposition to it.

"We have an obligation to protect our forces from any threats -- and the threat of anthrax is a very real one," Charles L. Cragin, acting assistant secretary for reserve affairs, declared after taking his shot. "The anthrax vaccine will protect our troops."

But Air Force Reserve Col. Allan J. Reiter and other members of the Reserve Officers Association are not convinced.

"Almost everyone I talk to has questions or concerns," said Reiter, who was among those who tried -- and failed -- to persuade the conference to consider delaying the vaccine program and calling for further study. "Maybe there's some earthshaking military benefit, but I don't see it."

Shots due by 2003

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen last year ordered all 2.4 million active-duty and reserve forces to take the shots by 2003, with those deployed to the Persian Gulf and South Korea first in line. Cohen is among those who are taking the shots.

The Pentagon insists that the vaccine program is "incredibly successful." More than 170,000 troops have begun the inoculations, officials say, and only a few dozen enlisted personnel have refused and have faced disciplinary action ranging from reprimands to courts-martial.

But the citizen-soldiers who are balking are posing a particular headache for the Pentagon. Unlike their active-duty counterparts, they can quit. And their efforts to turn the vaccine program into a voluntary one is a concept that is anathema to the military.

Many of the National Guard members and reservists are pilots, who cost $6 million each to train. Moreover, the loss of pilots over the anthrax issue will exacerbate the number of pilot resignations, which have been linked to too many overseas missions and the lure of high-paying commercial airline jobs.

Guard and Reserve pilots are desperately needed to augment active-duty forces on the continuous missions to Bosnia and the Persian Gulf. Nowhere is this more urgent than among the units who fly cargo and refueling planes; Reserve and Guard members make up the bulk of these pilots.

Nine pilots at the 103rd Fighter Wing of the Connecticut Air National Guard -- 25 percent of their wing's combat fighter force -- resigned rather than take the vaccine and head to the gulf.

`We've done our homework'

Reserve and Guard pilots say they are speaking with their comrades throughout the country, questioning anthrax specialists and poring over medical research reports. Units in Iowa and California are threatening to quit rather than submit to the vaccine.

"We've done our homework," said Capt. Tom Rempfer, a Connecticut Guard pilot and Air Force Academy graduate who resigned rather than take the series of shots. "Sentiment is growing in Guard and Reserve units about this shot policy. We don't think this is viable force protection. We're going to have more resignations because of this."

"With no doubt there'll be several more to follow in Mr. Rempfer's footsteps," said one F-16 National Guard pilot who requested anonymity.

But Cragin, the acting assistant defense secretary, said he was not concerned about further resignations. "I don't see it as a growing problem," he said.

Still, Cragin acknowledged that the Pentagon must disseminate more information to the part-time soldiers about the vaccine, out of concern that they are picking up "expressions of opinion" on the Internet rather than hard facts.

Opponents of the vaccine, however, say that their information is coming from the government itself. The Pentagon's contention that the vaccine is effective against all known strains of anthrax is disputed, critics say, by studies and reports from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command at Fort Detrick.

One 1986 study tested the vaccine against 27 randomly selected anthrax isolates in guinea pigs. The animals proved immune to 18 of the strains. But most of the guinea pigs did not survive the nine other strains.

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