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DAFB civilians face 'backdoor draft'

Deleware Online

Many of the 1,000 key workers may quit over forced vaccinations.

A Department of Defense plan to increase the number of civilian personnel who receive the anthrax vaccine could lead to a mass exodus among the more than 1,000 skilled employees at Dover Air Force Base, union officials say.

A labor law expert says the requirement to take the anthrax vaccine may violate the workers' constitutional rights.

And a civilian engineering and airfield maintenance team based at Dover, which just received orders to take the controversial shots, is already balking at the requirement.

Nationwide, the defense department's 800,000 civilian employees are being drawn into the controversy over the anthrax vaccination program simmering among Air Force pilots and crews at Dover and around the country. The civilians, many former military, work as accounting technicians, aircraft mechanics, air traffic controllers and civil engineers, in addition to holding positions in the food service, supply, maintenance and medical fields.

A recent Pentagon initiative intended to make the military more mobile also affects civilian military workers: They must be ready to be deployed with troops in war zones around the world. That could include requiring vaccinations to protect them from biological attacks.

All U.S. troops deployed overseas must take a series of six anthrax vaccinations. Many around the world have refused and face possible court martial. Civilians employed by the military can be fired for failure to comply with military orders.

The News Journal reported earlier this month that the troops received anthrax vaccine starting in 1999 that may have contained squalene, a substance that can be used to increase the potency of vaccine. Some researchers believe that even trace amounts of squalene can suppress the immune system, causing arthritis, neurological problems, memory loss and incapacitating migraine headaches.

"It's conceivable that the entire Department of Defense civilian work force is at risk of the anthrax vaccine," said Brent Reynolds, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1709 Inc., the union representing Dover's civilians. Reynolds is a jet aircraft mechanic at the base.

"In the 1960s, they wouldn't draft anyone over 35. Now they want to make guys in their 50s and 60s deployable," said Peter Buono, Local 1709's executive vice president and a machinist at the base.

The union's fight against the vaccination program so far has been unsuccessful.

Charges Reynolds and Buono filed with the Federal Labor Relations Authority were dismissed. They've tried without success to take their concerns to Air Force Col. John Pray, the base commander.

"He's the CEO of the base, but he won't meet with us," Reynolds said. "We can't even get him to the table to negotiate the shots."

Pray did not respond to numerous calls or e-mails seeking comment about the union leaders' concerns.

Pentagon spokesman James Turner said in a written statement that anthrax vaccinations are required for all Defense Department civilian workers designated as "emergency essential" and deployed or stationed in higher threat areas such the Middle East or Korea.

"The number of designated emergency essential civilians is a very small portion [generally less than 30,000] of the overall number of DoD personnel currently required to receive anthrax vaccinations in the higher threat areas," Turner wrote.

Dover's union leaders don't buy it. Their national union joined 39 others last month in a letter to every U.S. senator calling on the lawmakers to stop the forced vaccinations.

"It's nothing more than a back-door draft," Reynolds said. "If we're deployable, that makes us civilians in uniform. Are they going to issue us uniforms too? Are they going to hand us a gun? From now on, once we're all deployable, they're going to expedite the anthrax vaccination program. Many of our members are older. If they're required to take the shots, there's going to be a mass exodus."

Officials at Dover would not discuss potential losses in their civilian work force.

Neither Reynolds nor Buono could estimate the cost to replace union workers at the base.

"It would be in the millions," Buono said.

When pilots in 1999 were forced to take the vaccine, 55 pilots out of 120 in the Air Force Reserve wing stationed at Dover resigned, leaving the base below strength. The military has never released the cost of replacing them.

Many are older workers

Union officials say the 2004 Defense Authorization Act, known as the National Security Personnel System, is nothing more than an attempt to curb the unions' power and militarize their members.

According to Defense Department documents, the military hopes to create a more agile and responsive work force, where "employees and/or a work unit can be easily geographically moved either temporarily or permanently, to meet changing mission requirements. ..."

Most civilian defense employees are in their late 40s and 50s and sometimes 60s, much older than their military counterparts, union officials said. Many already have medical problems and do not want the added risks associated with the anthrax vaccine, which some researchers believe cause severe autoimmune disorders.

"We represent Desert Storm and Desert Shield veterans. They're not looking forward to going back to a hot LZ [landing zone]," Buono said.

At the Pentagon, Turner repeated that the vaccine is safe, even for older civilian workers.

Reynolds and Buono said their members are afraid to come forward because they are supervised by military personnel and fear reprisals.

"These guys know they'll be disciplined in some way if they talk, on evaluations or bonuses, or by withholding their promotions," Reynolds said.

The union leaders predict chaos will result if their members resign en masse.

"Without us, they wouldn't be able to exist. They need our experience," Reynolds said. "You just can't walk in here and start working on a [C-5] aircraft that's two football fields long. You need experience."

The union wants the vaccination program to be voluntary.

"I'd prefer to take my chances with the disease," Buono said.

Problems emerged at Dover in May 1999 after some troops in their 20s and 30s began developing illnesses normally associated with old age.

Retired Col. Felix Grieder, who commanded Dover Air Force Base at the time, has concluded that his troops were the subjects of illegal experiments at the base. Grieder halted the vaccination program in 1999, a move he has said brought an end to his military career.

Military and international law prohibits giving troops drugs without their knowledge and consent. Federal law prohibits administering drugs that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Neither the military nor the FDA test for squalene, a substance that occurs naturally in the body. Some experts say even trace amounts of squalene can suppress the immune system when the substance is injected into the body.

Testing by the FDA in 2000 detected squalene in varying amounts in the vaccine. The substance was detected in all the vaccine sent to Dover in 1999, but not in vaccine sent to other military installations.

The Air Force and the Department of Defense have continually stressed the safety of the vaccine, despite the claims of military personnel who say it made them ill.

The military has secretly experimented with squalene to test its ability to boost the effectiveness of some vaccines. The Department of Defense has admitted conducting tests on humans using squalene in vaccines in Thailand. But the military said any contamination in the vaccine in Dover must have occurred accidentally.

The military has said it suspects that the FDA conducted faulty tests and that the vaccine contained no squalene. It also contends that the amounts of squalene the FDA said were contained in the vaccine would have been too small to affect human health.

For the union, the vaccine has become an issue of top concern.

"The anthrax shots is the single biggest concern on this base in the past 20 years," Reynolds said.

Previous protests

Controversial immunizations and a reliance on civilian labor are nothing new to the U.S. military.

George Washington, while commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, caused an uproar by requiring militia men to submit to small pox vaccinations before they were allowed to fight.

"Washington created quite the row back then, getting all those Minutemen to come in, stand in line and get the small pox shot," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Dr. William Duncan. "In those days they actually gave the soldiers a dose of the small pox germ."

Duncan, a medical doctor and military historian, said the military's reliance on civilian labor has been increasing over time, because civilians provide a highly trained, but more importantly, stable work force.

"Military personnel generally rotate to new assignments every two or three years," he said. "There has always been a need for the civilians' stability at the camps and bases around the country. The technical experience needed to maintain a C-5 is phenomenal. You'll find the vast majority of people maintaining C-5s and helicopters are civilians, because they'll be there today, tomorrow and next week."

Legal precedent

Attorneys who specialize in labor and employment law say the mandatory nature of the anthrax vaccination program raises concerns for the civilian defense workers.

"The military operates with the attitude that they're totally unaccountable under the law," said Wilmington attorney Thomas Neuberger. "My point is, I have engaged in heavy-duty litigation with the Pentagon, and they think they can do anything."

By requiring the vaccine, the Pentagon may be violating the constitutional rights of the civilian work force, in addition to federal labor laws, Neuberger said.

"Civilians have rights - entitlements to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - and happiness could very well mean your job," he said. "The military is not above the law. They will be handled by Congress, who will take them to their knees."

Local attorney Herb Feuerhake is troubled by what he sees as the Orwellian nature of the mandatory vaccinations.

"It comes down to the motivation of the Department of Defense. Presumably, these civilians could be sent to a remote location fraught with the potential for disease. It sounds like the clause in the contract covering vaccinations may have been insisted upon by the union to protect the workers," he said. "But here, it is being twisted around to force people to do something they do not want to do. That's what's odd. Something that was supposed to protect the worker is now feared."

The military would not comment on the legal issues posed by the civilian program.

Union leaders say they will continue to fight against the mandatory vaccinations.

"I'm trying to represent my members and protect their lives," Reynolds said. "I've got 1,000 lives to be concerned about."