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The perilous experiment, part one: Four survivors of the military’s anthrax vaccine

By John Byrne | RAW STORY

Promising lives shattered by anthrax vaccine

As an Air Force police officer, Kerri Dorsey worked twelve to fourteen hour days. She did physical training after work. She volunteered.

“When somebody’s wife had a baby, I did showers for them,” Dorsey says. “I did shop-with-a-cop programs where we took underprivileged kids to get gifts for the holidays.”

“I even held a second job as a DJ just for extra money,” she adds softly, “because you know we don’t make much.”

Now everything has changed. It has been six years since the 28-year-old Floridian got her fourth anthrax vaccine shot – there are six in the initial series – and she has since developed muscular sclerosis. She walks with a cane, and finds it hard to remember ordinary things, like grocery lists.

“I know I’m supposed to go the grocery store,” she says, “but when I get there I can’t remember those three things I need.”

Dorsey is not alone. RAW STORY has spoken with other servicemembers whose promising careers have been truncated by the vaccine. Dozens more have shared their personal tragedies with news organizations around the country.

A 2002 study published in Emerging Drugs & Devices found a “statistically significant relationship existed between anthrax vaccination and arthralgia, arthritis, arthrosis, joint disease, myelitis, vasculitis, Guillain-Barre’ syndrome, myalgia, flu syndrome, diarrhea, liver function test abnormalities, gastrointestinal disease, weight loss and nausea.”

Another study the same year, commissioned by Congress and paid for by the Defense Department, and is regularly used by the Pentagon and the manufacturer, came to other conclusions.

The National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine study found the vaccine to be “sufficiently safe,” though they stated that a new vaccine was “urgently needed.”

“The most prudent course of action is to develop a new vaccine,” said committee chair Brian L. Strom, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

The report did not identify any unexpected short-term adverse reactions to the anthrax vaccine.

Yet hundreds of soldiers have suffered permanent afflictions as a result of the vaccine. The military, however, continues to assert that it is safe and has court-martialed those who refuse to take it since it was required for all troops in 1998.

The Pentagon’s anthrax vaccine website, anthrax.mil, has a tagline, “a matter of health, a matter of trust, a matter of national security.”

“Your health and safety are our number one concerns,” the site claims. “The anthrax vaccine is safe and effective.”

Six servicemembers filed suit in March 2003 against the Defense Department questioning the mandate for an unsafe vaccine. That case is awaiting a final ruling.

Dorsey asserts she noticed early warning signs after taking the shots. Doctors brushed her concerns aside, she says.

After the first shot caused an allergic reaction, and the second and third injections caused flu-like symptoms and diarrhea, the Air Force slated her for the fourth in the series. This time Dorsey had more than an allergic reaction – she went into anaphylactic shock.

“I thought I was gonna die for a minute there,” she says.

But being on the verge of death wasn’t enough for her military doctors to cancel the rest of the shots.

“They said they could not prove that it was from the vaccine even though my doctor said it was,” she says. “The higher ranking doctor said it wasn’t because they didn’t want the stigma from the vaccine.”

So she dodged the fifth shot, claiming she was pregnant (she wasn’t). Soon thereafter, she was retired from the military for more serious health ailments. The service tried to reduce her disability payments as much as possible.

Even though it was clear her condition wouldn’t allow her to keep a steady job, they offered her a scant 30 percent disability. She fought, and got 50 percent. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs later qualified her for 100 percent, 70 percent of which was tagged directly to her MS.

In February of 2001, while skiing in Montana, the whole left side of her body went numb. That June, she went blind. Each of these incidents, known as MS exacerbations, were temporary. But her condition is not.

“I have to take a nap every single day,” she says. “I’m so wore down. I take a shot three times a week for my MS, usually in my stomach or my legs. I take a pill every morning. I have a son who is going to be three in December.”

Disabled by vaccine, he’s recalled to serve

Jason Cordova was a jumpmaster; he helped soldiers jump out of planes. He was an Army captain and a communications detachment commander for the Special Forces.

Now he has pain in the lymph nodes of his groin, and trouble urinating. His diagnosis? Nobody knows.

Cordova says he’s seen urologists and infectious disease specialists six to ten times. The VA gave him a 10 percent disability, linking it directly to the anthrax vaccine.

“I can still feel where I got the shot, even after four years,” Cordova says.

On June 21, he was recalled to Operation Enduring Freedom, an operation primarily focused in Afghanistan. Cordova says he expects the Army will medically exempt him from the further vaccine shots, though he doesn’t understand why they would send him into what the Army has classified a high-threat area without protection.

“How can all of the soldiers at the left, right, rear and front require it and why don’t I?” he asks.

“How about the fact that if I get called back into active duty my disability benefits stop?” he queries, his voice rising. “How absurd is that?”

Cordova penned letters to his local officials. He wrote to his senator, Arlen Specter (R-PA), who is the chairman of the Veteran’s Affairs committee in the Senate.

“This is about leadership, principle and trust in our government,” he wrote. “If I can’t be adequately protected from a deadly risk of infection — as described by the highest levels of government — how could it be legally, ethically and/or morally justified to deploy anywhere without a life-protecting vaccination?”

Last Thursday, Sen. Specter’s office told him that they had submitted an inquiry to the Army on his behalf.

“If I got called up for Operation Enduring Freedom and it didn’t require being in an area with a high risk of anthrax exposure I would have boots on the ground immediately,” he says. “I would be there in a heartbeat.”

Cordova notes he has a George W. Bush sign in his front yard, and that he supports the global war on terror. He says his concern regarding the vaccine isn’t about politics.

“I support the president. This isn’t about left or right,” he says. “This is about right or wrong.”

Bitterness and suspicion

Dwayne Fitzpatrick says he never knew he was getting the anthrax shot.

“I didn’t even know I got the first one,” Fitzpatrick says.

He claims that the vaccine’s application was slipshod, and not always documented. He coughs sometimes as he speaks.

“I know guys who have gone into tents and have gotten shots and it was written in a document but wasn’t transferred to their records,” he states.

“I’ve known people that got six or seven before,” he adds. “They forgot to write it down.”

Since he got his fifth shot, Fitzpatrick has experienced pain all over his body, coughs and memory loss. A civilian doctor confirmed in 2003 that his illness was “associated with the anthrax vaccination,” and a military doctor in 2004 that his cognitive deficits were “secondary to anthrax vaccination.”

“After each shot I got this huge lump and broke out in a fever, and was just sick for days,” he says.

“Thirty eight doctors later,” he adds soberly, “it hasn’t gotten any better.”

Fitzpatrick rattles off a list of 25 medications he’s been on, including anti-depressants he says he didn’t even know he was taking. The list reads like that of a senior citizen’s – naproxen, Vioxx, Ambien, Trazadone, Celebrex, Lexapro – though he’s just 43.

“I was given sleeping pills over in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “I was over there for almost four months. I was supposed to be over there for six months but the Air Force doctor felt so bad for me that he requested I go back to the U.S.”

Before the shots, Fitzpatrick says he was a runner, a biker and a swimmer. Now he’s too weak to do much of anything. But he’s more worried about his memory loss.

“It took me three months to remember my Army password,” he confesses. “Three months of repetitions to remember my own password.”

“The pain thing, I’ll get used to,” he says, “but the memory thing – I’ll never get used to that.”

Fitzpatrick says he’s angry at the company that made the vaccine, and the military for requiring it. The military accepts the idea of collateral damage, even if it applies to their own troops, he asserts.

“If it protects ten people and it kills one,” he says, “that’s acceptable losses.”

Twenty-two, and unemployable

Michael Girard, also a military police officer, used to work twelve to fourteen hour days.

“Now a day for me consists of rolling out of bed in the morning and lying on the couch,” he says. “That’s about it.”

Twenty-two, Girard lives in constant pain. Just over a year after his enlistment, he was discharged from the Air Force with a 100 percent disability. Veterans’ Affairs will give him money to support him, his wife and his fifteen-month old son for the rest of his life.

According to military doctors, the source of his disability was a “temporal reaction to the anthrax vaccine.”

Girard, too, says he was never told he was getting the vaccine.

“The first shot I had wasn’t even in the medical clinic on base, it was in the education center, in the auditorium,” he says. “They said, “Roll up your left sleeve,” and just stuck us.”

Shortly after his fifth shot, Girard developed pain all over his body. He has suffered pain in his groin, stomach, head, knees and joints for the two years since he got his last shot. He also experiences dizziness.

When he told commanders that he thought his condition resulted from the shots, they cut him off financially and told him not to speak out.

“I would get calls from my first sergeant telling me to keep my mouth shut,” he says.

Girard has upcoming appointments with a gastrointestinal specialist and a neurologist, but doubts that anything will come of it.

“I still hope one day that I won’t wake up in pain,” he says, “But I guess there’s just a certain extent to which you can hope.”

“Who’s gonna want to hire a guy who can some days barely get out of bed?”

Coming later this week: The firm that manufactures the vaccine claims it produces no adverse health effects. They’ve convinced the U.S. conference of mayors to put pressure on the Health and Human Service Department so the vaccine can be approved for civilian use. They sent marketing delegations to all three of the presidential debates. Just how far will a company go to make money, and how do they respond to charges their vaccine is unsafe?