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Some await anthrax shot antidote

ERIC STEINKOPFF
DAILY NEWS STAFF

James Muhammad says that those who check his record will see he was a good Marine. An honor graduate from several military courses, he also received at least one meritorious promotion. In only two years and 11 months, he was promoted to sergeant on Nov. 1, 2002 - a rapid rise through the chain of command.


On Nov. 29 of that same year, Muhammad, a data networking specialist assigned to 8th Communications Battalion at Camp Lejeune, received the Good Conduct Medal.

But in a few days everything changed. It happened after he expressed concerns about the anthrax vaccine.

"When I came into the Marines the only thing I wasn't going to give up was my religious convictions - anything else was negotiable," Muhammad, a Muslim, said Friday. "I was ordered one time and there was no discussion about it. I was told that we were taking the anthrax shots the next day and it made me feel weird. I told my staff sergeant that I had some concerns about it."

Muhammad refused to take the vaccine. Less than six months later, on April 9, 2003, he was sentenced to 60 days in the brig, demoted to the rank of private and received a bad conduct discharge. He was jailed, strip-searched and housed with violent criminals.

"It's very odd showing up at the brig as a sergeant," Muhammad said. "A lance corporal started yelling at me like a drill instructor. When you first get there they don't know why you're there - they just think that you're the scum of the earth. The worst part was visiting on Saturday and Sunday - to have my wife see me like that."

Now Muhammad wonders what will happen next. In December, a U.S. District Court Judge in Washington ordered the military to stop giving troops anthrax vaccinations unless they volunteer or if a presidential order is given.

"The women and men of this country put their lives on the line every day to preserve and safeguard the freedoms that all Americans cherish and enjoy," Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said in his ruling. "Absent an informed consent or presidential waiver, the United States cannot demand that members of the armed forces also serve as guinea pigs for experimental drugs."

Muhammad and other servicemembers skeptical about the vaccinations applauded the ruling but were not optimistic about how their cases might be resolved. Muhammad is considering hiring a lawyer. Some members of Congress are calling for reparations for those who were punished and Muhammad said correcting his military record and reinstating him to the rank of sergeant are a start.

"I'm not letting this go," Muhammad said.

Paying the price

Muhammad is one of at least two Lejeune Marines who refused to receive anthrax vaccinations and faced punishments in military court. 1st Lt. Erick Enz, a CH-46 Sea Knight pilot with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162, Marine Aircraft Group 29 at New River Air Station, pleaded guilty and was dismissed from the Marine Corps.

Muhammad claims that those who were in a position to help him follow his religious beliefs were actually gathering information to use against him.

"I hadn't even been given an order yet and they started the ball rolling," Muhammad said. "As soon as I said that I had concerns, they contacted legal to find out what they needed to do to charge me."

Muhammad said each person who talked with him took notes and made statements to testify in the case against him.

"I thought that they were trying to help me, but they were making sure that they could file charges on me," Muhammad said. 'They said that I could not have an attorney until formal charges are filed. I questioned the legality of the order in writing."

Muhammad also said his young military defense lawyer wasn't up to the challenge of a complicated case.

"Usually they defend someone who gets drunk or (is in unauthorized absence status)," Muhammad said.

"I was given military counsel, but my recommendation is regardless of the charges, get civilian counsel."

Enz paid a high price, too, Muhammad said.

"I sat at the Erick Enz trial in pain," Muhammad said. "I learned later that he should never have pleaded guilty and I shouldn't have pleaded guilty. That's the thing that bothers me most.

"I learned later that you have to do something with the intent to break the law or for personal gain to be guilty," Muhammad said.

Dangerous, or not

Department of Defense officials contend that the vaccination is safe, as do military doctors at Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital. But a September 2002 U.S. General Accounting Office report to Congress says that the rate of severity of adverse reactions to the vaccine are considerably greater than advertised.

Two Marines, one from Camp Lejeune and another from New River, contend that anthrax vaccinations they received in the Marine Corps gave them symptoms similar to Gulf War Syndrome. Neither served in Kuwait or Iraq. Both were recently given medical discharges.

Sgt. Brian Fleming, 29, an infantryman formerly with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, served for eight years in the Marine Corps but watched as his body began to fall apart.

"I had four anthrax shots and started having problems," Fleming said. "We were sitting off the coast of Sierra Leone and I started having extreme joint pain. I (also) had digestive problems, my skin broke out in hives from head to toe, there is ringing in my ears, memory loss and migraines."

Fleming originally thought that he might have hurt himself working out. He was hesitant to seek medical attention.

"I was a career minded infantry Marine," Fleming said. "When my shoulder started going it was like a rotator cup injury, (so) I went to the corpsman outside of the (Battalion Aid Station) - a sergeant doesn't go to sick call."

But the pain and complications got worse. It got a point that he could not longer serve.

"But I wasn't going to make a big fuss because I've seen what happens to others," Fleming said. "The ones who refuse get kicked out with a dishonorable discharge. For people with bad symptoms who said it was anthrax - it was like raising a red flag because everyone in their chain of command came down on them. As much as I love the Marine Corps, I'd have refused the shot and taken the stinking dishonorable discharge if I knew then what I know now."

Sgt. Will Hawkins, 30, an airframes mechanic from Norman, Okla. assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit was medically discharged on Oct. 31.

"I think it's a wonderful thing that they suspended (the shots) - it affected me deeply," Hawkins said. "Maybe that will save some men and women some grief. I had to go to a civilian doctor to get things done - the actual diagnosis."

Hawkins looks at the anthrax shots with regret, but is resigned to his fate. He likes the idea of helping others who are less fortunate.

"I wish that I never took it, but I'm glad that I'm helping others out who are having a hard time dealing with it," Hawkins said. "I'm a proud American and I would serve my country again. I'm a Marine - trained to survive and that's really all I can do right now. There are guys out there without family, so when this happens to them, who do they have to turn to?"

Although he suffered through about 18 months of medical treatments, hospitalization and convalescent leave, Hawkins praised his unit for understanding.

"They put you on medication so you can't drive yourself to work and you spend a lot of time in the hospital," Hawkins said. "A lot of guys still had to come in to work."

What next?

Opponents of the anthrax vaccination program seemed to have won a victory with Sullivan's ruling. Lacking approval by the Food and Drug Administration, Sullivan found that the anthrax vaccination is "an investigational drug and a drug used for an unapproved purpose."

"I've given up on the military making a diagnosis," Fleming said. "They're all worried about their careers. They can't come right out and say that somebody poisoned us. It's politics, something way above us at the Department of Defense executive branch level."

Muhammad agrees.

"These guys play hard ball," Muhammad said. "There will probably be a conference room deal, a handshake and it will all end up in the Supreme Court."

Coincidently, the FDA Tuesday approved the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine after an 18-year delay.

"The data in the final rule is the same (that we've had) for the last six years of controversy," said Washington, lawyer Mark S. Zaid. "We filed in March, argued in May and (up to now) nobody would even allow us to hear the merits of the case. The timing of the FDA ruling, one week after judge Sullivan's ruling is extremely suspicious."

Sullivan's ruling gives the military until Jan. 30, 2004 to file its response to the injunction. Lawyers for the Department of Defense are to meet with the court by Feb. 24, file final arguments by March 2 and meet again in a conference session on or about March 9.

In a Dec. 23 press release, the Department of Defense said it "will stop giving anthrax vaccinations until the legal situation is clarified," while still maintaining that the "vaccine is safe and effective for all forms of anthrax exposure."

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