Maryland National Guard head rescinds anthrax-vaccine letter

Failure to get shots could lead to charge for training, it said

January 25, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The commanding general of the Maryland Air National Guard rescinded yesterday a letter to about 40 Guard pilots that warned them they had to agree to take the Pentagon's anthrax vaccine or face paying back about $30,000 for training on new aircraft next spring.

Brig. Gen. David A. Beasley, head of the state's Air Guard, pulled the Jan. 9 letter that some pilots dismissed as "blackmail" in favor of a toned-down letter that focuses instead on training and removes any reference to the anthrax vaccine.

Pentagon officials said they knew of no reimbursement required if a pilot decides to leave after receiving such training.

Pilots say as many as 10 Maryland Air National Guard pilots could resign rather than take the vaccine, which they believe is unsafe, like hundreds of other citizen-soldier pilots around the nation who have resigned over the issue. Dozens of active-duty troops have faced disciplinary action, including courts-martial, for failing to take the shots.

In the midst of these concerns, Maryland Guard officials have held briefings on the vaccine and provided medical information, although pilots say their questions have not been addressed. Now those Maryland pilots are gearing up for training with the Air Force's newest cargo plane -- the C-130J -- and Guard officials are sensitive to the costs involved, trying to make sure that those who are trained plan on staying.

"I'm guess I'm not taking the shot," said one C-130 pilot, who requested anonymity and like other pilots questions the safety of the vaccine. "Basically it's blackmail."

Another pilot said he plans to take the vaccine but complained, "The way it's being handled will exacerbate the whole thing."

Beasley was unavailable for comment. Capt. Robert L. Gould, a spokesman for the Guard, said he was uncertain why there was a reference to a reimbursement of about $30,000. Beasley is "correcting the record," Gould said, adding it was not the general's intent to "drum up the anthrax issue."

Mark S. Zaid, a Washington lawyer who has represented active-duty personnel who have refused the vaccine, termed the letter "intentional intimidation and harassment."

Pentagon Guard and Reserve officials said they were unware of any policy that requires pilots to repay training costs for transition to the new C-130J, which requires two months of training, should they decide to leave.

Rather than refer specifically to the vaccine, Beasley's new letter reminds pilots about their "personal preparedness -- for worldwide deployment." Under Pentagon policy, pilots must take take the anthrax vaccine before they can fly to certain hot spots, such as the Persian Gulf and Korea.

Concerns raised by pilots after the first letter, Beasley wrote, showed "my intent was not clearly conveyed" about the importance of training and the three-year service commitment they would incur after the C-130J training.

Gould said Guard pilots would receive the new letter at the end of the week, although there is no deadline for pilots to sign off on it. The first letter said pilots would be required to approve a "statement of understanding" during the next Guard meeting on Feb. 5.

Maryland's C-130 pilots are expected to begin their training for the upgraded aircraft in the spring, although it is uncertain when they will take the vaccine. A shortage of the vaccine has led the Pentagon to postpone the program for at least six months and provide the vaccine to troops being sent to the Persian Gulf or Korea.

Two years ago, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered all 2.4 million active-duty and reserve-service members to take the anthrax vaccine by 2004 as a defense against terrorists or rogue states who might use the deadly virus as a weapon.

Pentagon officials have said the vaccine is safe and effective, and it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1970. Cohen and top commanders -- including Beasley -- are taking the shots.

Some of those refusing complain there have been no long-term studies of the vaccine. Still others point to fellow service members who have become ill after taking the shots, including a number of pilots at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

"My odds of getting sick with the vaccine are greater than me getting hit with anthrax," said one Maryland Air Guard pilot. "There's no way I'm getting stuck with that damn thing."

Some in Congress have called for a halt in the vaccine while long-term testing is done. Other lawmakers prefer to make the mandatory policy voluntary.

Pentagon officials counter that nearly 400,000 service members have taken the vaccine and there have been no unusual side effects, other than temporary soreness associated with other shots.

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