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Air Force veteran claims smallpox vaccine made him sick

By: Jim Lokay, News 10 Now Web Staff

Central New Yorkers have played a big part in America's war on terror. From Fort Drum to Hancock Air Field and everywhere in between, it's more than a duty, it's an honor.

"Since 2001 when the Twin Towers were hit, I've been doing everything I can at the 174th," said Marshall Riopelle.

It's meant to protect America's armed forces from a bioterrorist attack but for a Rome veteran, the smallpox vaccine has been nothing but a medical nightmare.

Marshall Riopelle is one of them. The 22-year Air Force veteran was eager to head to the Middle East for Operation Iraqi Freedom. But when he headed out last September his tour of duty ended in unexpected agony.

"Ended up receiving a smallpox vaccination about seven days after I got there, probably about the 12th of September, and ended up developing a cardio-myopathy," Riopelle said.

The vaccine is part of a battery of shots servicemen and women are receiving to ward off a chemical or bioterrorist attack.

While each shot has its own effect, the military says side effects from the smallpox vaccine are generally minor. Symptoms may include: itching, swollen Lymph Nodes, body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Some first time vaccinees had chest pain due to myo-pericarditis. A few heart attacks, some fatal, have been reported. At this time, they are not believed to be caused by the vaccine.

The concerns weren't lost on Riopelle. A man who went into the Air Force with a clean bill of health, aside from a minor heart defect known as mitral valve prolapse, or a sticky valve, he was concerned.

"I felt that was good enough reason not to get it, but I was told that I was okay, it was okay to get it," said Riopelle.

But a tightening sensation in his chest turned into two months in military hospitals.

"I went to the clinic just for that figuring I had a stomach virus or something, and it turned out to be congestive heart failure," said Riopelle.

That alone led some doctors to rule him 100% disabled because it keeps him from doing anything labor-intensive basically, from working.

But a military medical board said he was only 10% disabled, and offered him a $44,000 pre-tax severance package.

"A lump sum, and that's it, take my money and go," said Riopelle.

Marshall shares a second-floor apartment here with his 14-year-old daughter Meagan. If you ask him why he's pushing this issue so far, he'll give you one reason, her.

"I want to see my daughter taken care of, and you're not going to take care of a child on a $44,000 settlement," said Riopelle.

The good news is the 174th has been extremely helpful in getting his medication and pushing him in the right direction. Its other parts of the military bureaucracy that he's having a problem getting help from.

"An answer, an end to the story anyways."

For now, he’s keeping his fingers crossed, hoping one will come soon.

The military isn't commenting on Riopelle's case, nor any other complaints about the smallpox vaccine.

However, officials are standing behind their vaccination program.