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Soldier refuses anthrax vaccine


By Shawn Hogendorf, Staff Writer

While serving in Iraq, Army Private First Class Leif Hamre of Prior Lake chose to take a stand against the mandatory anthrax vaccination the Army requires for soldiers in high-risk areas.

His stance fell upon deaf ears.

Upon entering the Army, Hamre, 22, was proud to serve his country and follow in the footsteps of his father, John, who was also a member of the U.S. Army, said Leif’s mother, Mary.

On June 24, Leif was given a document to complete prior to taking the mandatory anthrax vaccine. After receiving the form, Leif had 24 hours to decide whether to take the mandatory vaccine or face military punishment for disobeying a direct and lawful order from his commander.

Leif wrote in a letter to his parents that he spent hours doing “unbiased research” on his laptop computer that night when he came across information stating adverse reactions believed by some to be connected with the anthrax vaccine.

Some of the information Leif discovered included seizures, arthritis, migraines, heart attacks, blackouts, depressed behavior and death stemming from the vaccination.

After learning of the symptoms some veterans have faced, Leif decided to refuse the vaccine. In his letter, Leif wrote that he believes “the shot was dangerous and should still be in the lab for further testing.”

Before refusing the vaccine, Leif was an honorable soldier; he did his duties, didn’t make waves and was about to be promoted, Mary said.

After refusing the vaccination twice, Leif said he was punished with an Article 15, a non-judicial punishment for disciplinary offenses, which included a reduction in rank from specialist to private first class and working 18-hour days seven days a week for 15 days. After refusing the vaccine again in August, Leif wrote that he was taken off missions, demoted in rank from E-3 to E-1, decreased in pay and put on a 45-day restriction of extra duty.

Scott County Veterans Service Director Todd Kubinski said these punishments are a command-summary judgment (which doesn’t have to go through a jury) and are not unusual for a soldier facing an Article 15 punishment.

In addition to the dock in pay and rank and long work hours, Leif wrote that his commanders turned his platoon against him and threatened him in an attempt to get him to take the vaccine.

“The tactics they have used to coerce me into taking the shot are unregulated, unscrupulous and un-American,” Leif wrote. “As an American soldier you are expected to follow orders and put yourself in harm’s way, but unnecessary safety risks should not be accepted risks one is asked to face.”

But a soldier suspends the rights citizens have under the constitution while under military order, Kubinski said. When a soldier takes the oath, he or she swears to follow orders by officers, he said.

Kubinski said he hasn’t seen a case of claims concerning adverse reactions to the anthrax vaccination in his years working with Veterans Services in Hennepin or Scott counties.

“I don’t know if the vaccine is safe or not, but I know the vaccine has undergone a lot of testing by the military,” Kubinski said. “I do know if you are stationed somewhere you are required to take vaccinations and follow lawful orders. As for refusing to follow orders… it is my experience that you are required to follow orders or be punished by Article 15.”

When asked, U.S. Rep. John Kline’s office refused to comment on this issue.

An Army spokesperson, Maj. Nathan M. Banks Sr., said the vaccine has been controversial because of unproven myths. More than 20 studies of more than 800,000 vaccine recipients have established the safety of the vaccine, he said.

“We vaccinate our service members to protect them against deadly diseases – both natural and those potentially spread by terrorists or enemy forces,” Banks said.

The vaccine is used to prevent an anthrax infection and is the safest means of protection for high-risk personnel, Banks said.

All uniformed personnel, emergency-essential and equivalent Department of Defense civilian employees assigned for more than 15 days to U.S. Central Command or U.S. Forces in Korea are required to take the vaccine. There are also provisions for forces afloat, uniformed personnel assigned to special units and bio-warfare or bio-terrorism missions and other designated units must take the vaccine, Banks said.

Under the voluntary policy, only about half of service members in high-threat areas who were contacted about the vaccine volunteered to take it, Banks said.

“This low rate of vaccination not only put the service members at risk, but also jeopardized unit effectiveness and degraded medical readiness,” Banks said.

Historically, there have been few cases of insubordination in regards to taking the vaccine, Banks said.

“Most service members follow orders and understand that the vaccinations protect them and their units against a biological attack,” he said.

But the vaccine is a mandate that shouldn’t be in place, Mary Hamre said.

“Our government is abusing the privilege of ‘owning the soldiers,’” she said. “I have never heard of the soldiers being attacked with anthrax. We need to question the military’s reasons for the vaccine. We need to demand answers when soldiers are coming home sick from vaccines.”

“Soldiers are not supposed to say ‘no’ before the fact if they believe something is wrong,” John Hamre said. “If a soldier questions something, it’s supposed to be questioned after the fact. But then it’s too late.”

The proper procedure when disputing a military order is to go through the chain of command, Kubinski said. If there’s a problem, the soldiers must use a Judge Advocate General (JAG) lawyer or the inspector general, whose job is to see to the health and welfare of the troops.

Mary said Leif went to a JAG lawyer who advised him to take the vaccine or find someone else to represent him. But there isn’t anyone else until he is out of the service, she said.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a final ruling on Dec. 19, 2005, stating the anthrax vaccine is effective in preventing anthrax disease regardless of how soldiers may be exposed to it, Banks said. The licensed vaccine is safe and effective based on sound science by eight separate reviews, he said.

Dr. Meryl Nass, a physician from Maine who has treated service members who have become ill from the anthrax vaccine, disputes these claims.

Nass said there is no published evidence that the vaccine prevents any form of anthrax in humans. The 2002 Institute of Medicine committee did state this, but they had no evidence to prove it, she said. Five years later, there is still no evidence, she said.

Another point of contention regards the vaccine’s safety compared to other licensed vaccinations.

Banks said the “adverse events after anthrax immunizations are comparable to those observed with other vaccines administered to adults. There is no evidence that life-threatening or permanently disabling immediate onset adverse events occur at higher rates in individuals who have received the anthrax vaccine than in the general public.”

Nass also disputed this claim.

Nass said the anthrax vaccine has not been proven as safe as any other vaccine. The anthrax vaccine has the highest rate of reports of adverse reactions to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System of any licensed vaccine in the United States, she said, citing the Center for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly report.

Banks said based on 35 years of anthrax vaccine use, it has been documented that severe, but temporary, injection-site reactions can happen. He also said it’s known that 30 to 60 percent of people who receive the vaccine will develop a 1-inch injection-site reaction and about one in 100 people develop a reaction 5 inches or larger. The rate of side effects away from the site is about the same as other vaccines occurring in 5 to 35 percent of people, with effects going away in days, he said.

ProtectingOurGuardians.org claims that 21 deaths from the vaccine have been reported to the Food and Drug Administration since 2000 through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). The group also claims that 5,120 people have reported adverse reactions to the anthrax vaccine to VAERS.

FDA spokesperson Peper Long said through May 5 2007, 25 deaths have been reported to VAERS following the anthrax vaccination.

“From the information submitted, none of the deaths reported to VAERS can be directly attributed to the vaccine, but in any individual report, we cannot definitively rule out that the vaccine played a role,” Long said.

VAERS is a collection of raw data, Long said. Reports can come from a variety of sources. It is a passive survey system in which data is used by the FDA and the Center for Disease Control to see trends, she said. There are situations where issues are over reported and definitely issues where issues are under reported, Long said. Each serious report is followed up by phone calls to acquire as much information as possible about the report, she said.

Though Leif’s stand has caused him a dock in pay, rank and possible general discharge status when he finishes his time in the Army, he has done this for his fellow soldiers, his mother said.

“I am very proud of Leif,” his father added. “It takes one heck of a guy to stand up to the military. I was in the service, and I don’t think I would have stood up to them.”

“Our job is hard,” Leif wrote in his letter. “The things many soldiers have to deal with [are] trying. Not only are we assaulted with mortars, rockets, roadside bombs and gunfire, but we must also accept harmful chemicals into our bodies. They don’t give us armored vehicles and ballistic vests for it; instead we have to trust the impeccable record of the government when it comes to exposing soldiers to harmful substances and denying any responsibility of the outcome.”

Leif Hamre left Iraq with his squadron on Nov. 17. He is currently stationed in Alaska to finish his time in the service. He will have a short vacation in December before heading back to Alaska. It is unclear what his discharge status will be when completing his military commitment.

Shawn Hogendorf can be reached at (952) 345-6374 or shogendorf@swpub.com.