Air Force pilot seeks discharge over anthrax shots

Refusing vaccine leads to harassment, flier says

April 16, 2000|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- An Air Force VIP transport pilot has asked to leave the service because of what he termed harassment by superiors over his refusal to submit to controversial anthrax vaccinations.

The request by Capt. Clifton Volpe, a 1995 graduate of the Air Force Academy, comes amid congressional calls for a suspension of the military's anthrax vaccination program and a policy split over the issue at the highest levels of the Clinton administration.

President Clinton and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen are pressing hard for full compliance with the effort to inoculate all 2.4 million active duty and reserve members of the military. Cohen says the vaccine is safe and offers protection against potential attacks by terrorists and rogue governments employing anthrax as a biological weapon.

On Tuesday, Vice President Al Gore broke with the White House and Pentagon by calling for "careful evaluation" of whether the program should be mandatory.

"I feel the concerns are genuine," Gore told the military newspaper Army Times. "I also know that sometimes concerns of this sort are based on confusing data that is hard to interpret."

Volpe is the second pilot in a month to ask to leave the military over the issue. One of the first pilots to refuse inoculations when they were ordered by the Pentagon in October, Volpe received a $3,210 fine and an official reprimand months ago as punishment for insubordination.

Last month, Air Force Maj. Sonnie Bates, a C-5 cargo jet pilot at Dover Air Force Base, Del., was given a general discharge after receiving a fine and reprimand for balking at inoculations.

The dispute over the vaccine, and what many people believe are disabling side effects, is exacerbating a serious problem the Pentagon faces trying to retain pilots.

Volpe, assigned to Andrews Air Force Base, flies C-21 executive jets, which transport high-ranking officers and government officials such as Cohen.

In a letter to Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters released Wednesday, Volpe complained that he continues to suffer punishment beyond what he was sentenced to for the initial infraction.

"For six months, the Air Force has mistreated me, threatened me, punished me without due process or legal authority, and failed to follow its own regulations," he said. "My chain of command has also explicitly warned that they intended to make my life `unfulfilling' and `unrewarding.'"

In asking for an honorable discharge, Volpe complained that, though he was officially punished under the military's Article 15 procedure, he was not allowed to present his case to his commanding officer in person. Though regulations limit pay forfeiture to half a month's pay for two months, he was docked the entire amount in one month, he said.

His commanders also violated regulations, he said, by keeping him off flight duty for 180 days without getting the approval of the Air Force's Air Mobility Command.

Volpe was barred from Defense Department sports competitions and forbidden to tutor elementary schoolchildren, as he had been doing for several years as a volunteer, he said.

Volpe charged that his superiors have repeatedly threatened him if he does not submit to the vaccine and discussed his case in front of enlisted men.

His letter also alleged ill effects suffered from the vaccine by a technical sergeant, a female Defense Department employee, and an active duty pilot. The problems included energy loss, dizziness, headaches, thyroid gland difficulties, arthritis, low blood pressure, anemia, memory loss, auto-immune disorder, tremors, bronchitis, abdominal pains, weight loss and diarrhea, he said.

Bates also compiled a list of complaints from five active-duty C-5 pilots, a reserve pilot, three flight engineers and ground crew in presenting his case Dr. Sue Bailey, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, defended the vaccination as safe and the military's only effective defense against anthrax biological agents, which can kill people after one deep inhalation, she said.

She said nearly 400,000 service members have received at least some of the required six inoculations, which are given over an 18-month period.

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