Anthrax vaccine divides military

Reservists who refuse face lesser penalties

readiness drop feared

July 12, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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