Soldier may get general discharge in anthrax case

Recommendation comes after he refuses vaccine

March 03, 2000|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

A soldier who twice refused to roll up his sleeve for the Pentagon-ordered anthrax vaccination should be given a general discharge -- rather than a harsher "other than honorable" dismissal -- a Fort Meade administrative panel recommended yesterday.

The panel's decision came after a daylong hearing on misconduct charges against Army Pvt. Andrew J. Smith -- and amid a dispute between the Pentagon and a congressional subcommittee about the mandatory vaccinations.

Smith, assigned to the 741st Military Intelligence Battalion, 704th Military Intelligence Brigade, based at Fort Meade, had been recommended for an "other than honorable" discharge by his brigade commander.

Last year, when he held the rank of specialist, Smith refused in May and again in June to submit to the series of six inoculations. He forfeited $720 in pay, was assigned 59 days of extra duty, restricted to quarters 14 days and was stripped of three grades in rank he had earned in three years of Army service.

Smith is not the first soldier to risk a military career by refusing the shots. The Department of Defense estimates that 200 to 300 military personnel have refused the vaccine since August 1998, when Defense Secretary William S. Cohen began the program to inoculate all 2.4 million active and reserve American troops.

In a report Feb. 17, the House Government Reform national security subcommittee recommended a Defense Department moratorium on the mandatory shots, questioning the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

Pentagon officials submitted a 76-page rebuttal to the subcommittee's report Wednesday, arguing that the vaccine is safe. Some House members have drafted legislation to make vaccination voluntary, but the move appears to be generating little support.

Smith, a 23-year-old from Pottsville, Pa., was to be stationed in South Korea, one of a few hot spots deemed at greater risk of biological attack, when he was ordered to be vaccinated.

"Everything Private Smith earned in the Army has been taken away from him," his military lawyer, Capt. Ronald D. Sullivan, said after yesterday's hearing before the administrative panel of two officers and one senior noncommissioned officer.

The panel's recommendation goes to the garrison commander, Col. Michael J. Stewart. He can agree with the recommendation, upgrade the discharge to honorable or allow Smith to remain in the Army -- but not give him any harsher punishment.

"We respect the decision of the panel," Sullivan said. "It is our hope that [the commander] will take everything into account and accept the recommendations or set aside the general discharge and give this soldier an honorable discharge."

The vaccine at the center of the dispute was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1970. Defense officials say it is a necessary defense against anthrax, a fatal bacterium that some countries are believed to have prepared as a biological weapon.

More than 380,000 service members have at least begun the six-shot regimen. Some soldiers have become sick after taking the vaccine. Some soldiers and members of Congress have raised questions about its long-term effects.

Since the refusals began, several reservists were allowed to resign or transfer to alternative assignments to avoid the inoculation, while many on active duty have been court-martialed, sentenced to time in the brig and given dishonorable discharges.

This week, Air Force Maj. Sonnie Bates, a pilot at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and the highest-ranking officer to face punishment for refusing the vaccine, was fined $3,200 and reprimanded.

Smith said yesterday that he was not surprised by the general discharge recommendation in his case.

"This does seem fair in a way," he said, noting that in testimony he had to admit to refusing an order. "It could've been worse."

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