Air Force officer charged for refusing to take anthrax shot

Delaware major is among growing number of troops who fear vaccine's effects

January 15, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An Air Force major at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware was charged yesterday with disobeying an order for refusing to take the Pentagon's mandatory anthrax vaccine, the first active-duty officer cited in a growing, nationwide revolt that has centered on National Guard and Reserve forces.

Maj. Sonnie G. Bates, 35, a C-5 cargo plane pilot with 13 years of service and glowing reviews, could be sentenced to five years in prison for declining the six-shot regimen, saying he fears it is unsafe and untested.

Bates said that about 5 percent of the pilots in his squadron developed a variety of ailments after taking the shots. "The question I have for the military is, why haven't they put out a survey? How many people have this or that?" he said. "They should postpone it."

Pentagon officials have said the vaccine is safe and effective and that they have found no link between sicknesses and the vaccine, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1970.

Two years ago, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered all 2.4 million active-duty and Reserve service members to take the shots in case a terrorist or rogue state uses the deadly anthrax bacteria as a weapon.

Pentagon officials have played down the hundreds of Guard and Reserve pilots who have resigned rather than take the vaccine, noting that hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops have begun the shots.

Officials at the 436th Airlift Wing did not return phone calls but issued a statement saying Bates was charged with one count of disobeying an order by Col. Mark S. Solo, operations group commander for the wing.

The commander of the 21st Air Force, Maj. Gen. John D. Hopper Jr., will determine whether Bates will face a court-martial after the military's equivalent of a grand jury this month.

Bates' lawyer, Air Force Capt. William T. Burke, said the major's superiors refused to let him resign last fall and "accelerated" his schedule for the vaccine.

Maj. Frank Smolinsky, a spokesman for the 436th, said he was not aware of any acceleration and said Bates' resignation is being considered by top Air Force officials.

Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican who is chairman of the Government Reform Committee, wrote yesterday to Cohen and Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters saying he was "very disturbed" that Bates was charged and said the vaccine should be voluntary, noting the increasing concerns about the vaccine.

More than a dozen enlisted Marines were court-martialed in California for refusing to take the anthrax vaccine. Bates would be the first active-duty officer to face such punishment.

Pub Date: 1/15/00

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