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Opinion: If you suspect an anthrax vaccination

http://www.estripes.com/article.asp?section=125&article=42741
By Kelli M. Donley, Special to Stars and Stripes

To follow up on Stripes - recent articles [in which I'm quoted] on anthrax vaccinations ("Group fighting mandatory anthrax shots," Oct. 29, and "Anthrax vaccinations expected to resume in late January," Dec. 31-Jan. 1), I want to recommend several steps to any servicemember who, like me, thinks his or her health problems could be an adverse reaction to an anthrax vaccination:

- Visit the Military & Biodefense Vaccine Project (MBVP) Web site (www.military-biodefensevaccines.org/). These great people (former military) put me in touch with the Walter Reed Vaccine Healthcare Center, which is a special clinic devoted solely to treating servicemembers who have adverse reactions to vaccines. If you are interested in knowing more about my symptoms, MBVP has posted my television interviews so you can see how I walk and hear me talk. (FYI, my picture climbing into the F-16 is from a familiarization flight. I was a JAG, not a pilot.)

- Contact the healthcare center (www.vhcinfo.org/index.htm). Callers to the Department of Defense Vaccine Clinical Call Center, 1-866-210-6469, can remain anonymous. You can also be treated there - many servicemembers are sent or even transferred to Walter Reed, or placed back on active duty there for the sole purpose of receiving medical treatment for the problems they have after getting the vaccine.

I cannot thank the fine professionals at WRVHC enough! If it weren't for their intervention, medical review and recommendations for expert analysis, I wouldn't have gotten such a favorable outcome from the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB). Military VHCs are wholly dependent upon funding from Congress. I didn't know anything about VHCs until I talked, in April 2005, to one of the attorneys suing DOD to halt mandatory anthrax vaccinations. I hate to imagine the detriment to current servicemembers if the VHCs lack sufficient funding to complete their mission.

- Document, document, document! As for medical care, even when surrounded by experts, only YOU know YOU best. Do not let anybody talk you out of what you feel. Keep a daily health journal. Create a chronological time line of your onset of symptoms - stick to facts - the date; the event (injection/symptom/prescription/reaction, etc.); and your location (installation). This can help your medical providers - ask to have it put in your medical records. Keep searching for answers.

- Don't get stuck in a fight to get the military (or anyone) to admit the anthrax vaccine caused your problems (Would you smack a bear on the nose?). You do not need the military to admit any relationship between your condition and the vaccine (although it would provide an explanation), so long as your disability rating is at least 30 percent (which entitles you to retirement benefits - anything less gets you separation pay) and service connected/line of duty. To show service connected/line of duty, prove that you didn't have these specific health problems before entering the service, and that you have them now, during service.

- Look into other options. If you believe you are 100 percent disabled, you may also qualify for Social Security disability benefits. You can apply while you are on active duty. You will likely need an attorney experienced with both Social Security and the military to best help you. It may help your medical board results if Social Security had already approved you. I can't say for certain, since I was approved after I was medically retired, but it can't hurt.

- The MEB is not the end. To receive Department of Veterans Affairs or Social Security benefits, you have to file separate applications with those agencies. You will want to file with the VA to make a portion of your military disability pension nontaxable - it is taxable if you don't do this. There are numerous other benefits available to disabled vets that aren't well-publicized: you can usually keep your Servicemembers Group Life Insurance policy for two years, without paying premiums, but you have to apply within 120 days of separation from service and include your MEB findings (see form SGLV 8715 at www. insurance.va.gov/sglisite/forms/forms. htm#sgli_vgli). After two years, you can convert to Veterans Group Life Insurance. You may also be eligible for Traumatic Injury Protection under SGLI (see form GL.2005.261 at the previous Web site). You may also be able to conditionally discharge student loans due to permanent disability - check with the U.S. Department of Education.

In addition, different states have different benefits for disabled vets - check state veterans benefits when choosing where to live after active duty. Bottom line, you must seek out your entitlements. No one told me about most benefits, I found them.

- I would highly recommend you hire professionals to assist you because the agencies created to help you require so much paperwork that a disabled patient may grow tired and give up. Even though I am an attorney, I hired other attorneys to help me. It can be expensive, but this fight is for the rest of your life - you may be unemployable and you must fight to get what you are entitled to. Besides, legal fees you pay to ensure disability compensation are tax-deductible.

Ultimately, know that you are not alone. My faith in God, family and friends has gotten me through. My disease is Idiopathic Spinocerebellar Ataxia. For more information on Ataxia, please visit http://www.ataxia.org/.

Kelli M. Donley is a medically retired Air Force captain who lives in Oklahoma City. She believes her medical condition was a result of receiving doses of the anthrax vaccine.

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