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‘That shot messed him up’

Staff sergeant suspects effects of anthrax vaccine cut short his career
By Deborah Funk, Times staff writer

The walls are stripped bare, the furniture, pictures and awards are packed in storage, and the wheelbarrow and baskets overflowing with flowers that brightened the front yard have been given to neighbors. All that’s left for Staff Sgt. Eddie Norman to do is go to the finance office, turn in his military ID card and map the route from Fort Meade, Md., to San Antonio. There, he said, he’ll go to the Department of Veterans Affairs for health care and rehabilitation. Where his wife and three children will receive care in Texas is not yet known.

After nearly 15 years of service, Norman is being medically separated — not retired —from the Army for debilitating muscle and joint pain, stiffness and weakness that started after his anthrax vaccinations.

He’ll get a lump-sum payout, which under the Army’s formula works out to $66,319.20, or 24 months’ basic pay.

He had sought at least a 30 percent disability rating so that he could keep his military health care, commissary and exchange benefits.

“They’re supposed to take care of me. They are accountable for what’s happened to me,” said Norman, 38. “They’re not being accountable. They’re not holding good leadership.”

Norman keeps folders labeled “VA,” “SSI” and others in a brown casual briefcase. His stack of medical records includes his medical evaluation board results and 10 diagnoses. Three of those conditions — musculoskeletal pain, sleep apnea and clinical depression — prevent him from meeting military medical-retention standards, according to the documents.

But the Physical Evaluation Board, part of the Army’s personnel system, said only the musculoskeletal pain made him unfit for service, and the board rated him 20 percent disabled for that condition. The physical evaluation process follows Defense Department policy.

“I used to be perfectly healthy,” Norman said, sitting on a box in his living room, his cane lying next to him. “The illnesses I have now occurred while I was on active duty.”

But just because a doctor determines a service member doesn’t meet medical-retention standards does not automatically mean the condition makes the member unfit for service. And the Physical Evaluation Board rates only those conditions deemed to make someone unfit. Officers and enlisted personnel are treated the same.

The board is a “performance-based system ... the mere presence of a medical condition that falls below medical-retention standards does not mean that condition is unfitting,” said Army Col. Frederick Schumacher, executive officer of the Army Physical Disability Agency.

“What the board does is take a look at the diagnoses, rates those that are listed as falling below retention standards and makes an independent determination if that condition itself leads to the physical unfitness of the soldier. If the answer to that is yes, it is rated. If the answer to that question is no, the condition is not rated,” Schumacher said. “This is established by law. The services only rate the unfitting conditions.”

Norman, a 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran, had some memory problems and muscle and joint pain in the mid-1990s, but recovered and was functional, scoring well on physical tests and completing classes, he said.

His muscle and joint pain flared and worsened after his anthrax vaccinations. He lost some muscle control in his hands and legs, he said, and has suffered depression over his physical condition.

Documents from military medical exams link the problem to the time of his anthrax shots, but cannot conclude the shots caused the problem. Vaccine health care experts say they have seen similar cases following vaccinations.

“Staff Sgt. Norman was a high-functioning, decorated service member prior to beginning anthrax vaccine,” stated a document from the Walter Reed National Vaccine Healthcare Center in Washington. “Staff Sgt. Norman’s life has been significantly altered due to his current disability and hope for recovery is uncertain. The lack of clinical findings is discouraging and leaves his providers baffled and powerless as to an effective treatment plan.”

According to the document, the Vaccine Healthcare Center has treated “many proficient service members with debilitating conditions that cannot be diagnosed or medically substantiated, conditions that have developed in close temporal association to having received the anthrax as well as other vaccines.”

Norman got all six anthrax shots under the mandatory program. He received his first while preparing for deployment to South Korea. Afterward, he said, his hips hurt and he couldn’t turn his neck. His health grew worse after each shot, he said, and he suffers from muscle cramps, numbness in his legs, ringing in his ears, poor sleep, diabetes and other problems.

“That shot messed him up,” his wife, Regina, said. “Before he could play with the children, jump rope, trampoline, everything. Now he can’t do those things with the kids.”

Norman would tell his daughters they could go to a friend’s house, forget he’d said it and then get angry when they weren’t home.

He still uses a cane to walk, wakes in pain sometimes in the middle of the night, and gets confused and frustrated. His legs hurt — especially his right leg, which, he said, shakes uncontrollably at times and “hurts terrible.”

The former light tactical wheel mechanic with the 1st Infantry Division hasn’t worked his job in more than three years. His involuntary separation because of permanent physical disability begins this month.

In San Antonio, the family will be closer to friends and extended family members. Norman said his next step is to see a VA rehabilitation counselor to learn what jobs he can do and try to go to vocational school.

“I feel like everything I really worked for is lost,” Norman said. “All my time in service, honorable time in service, that I worked hard for, is wasted.”