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Corps to track anthrax refusal discharges

By Trista Talton - Staff writer

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Refusal to take the anthrax vaccine has cost many Marines their careers during the Pentagon’s on-, then off-, then on-again mandatory vaccination program.

Exactly how many Marines rejected the vaccine and were subsequently discharged throughout the six-year mandatory program is unknown. But a request from Congress, which is seeking statistics on the number of Marines discharged for refusing the six-shot regimen, is changing that.

In April, Marine administrative message 223/08 announced the Corps’ plans to track each case where a Marine was discharged for refusing the vaccine.

“In order to accurately track these discharges, we are establishing codes directly relating to these discharges,” the message states.

There are nine specific discharge codes. They track discharges or dismissals as a result of court-martial convictions, misconduct resignations allowed in lieu of administrative separation proceedings, and involuntary separations and resignations on grounds of misconduct and unacceptable conduct.

Anthrax is a potentially fatal disease spread by dust-like spores that can be inhaled. The Pentagon, saying the vaccinations are necessary to protect troops from weaponized versions of the disease, instituted a mandatory anthrax inoculation program in 1998.

During the mandatory program, which temporarily ceased in 2004, dozens of service members were court-martialed for refusing the vaccine, and hundreds more were administratively punished. More than 100 service members from all branches were court-martialed two years after the program began, according to 2000 federal court records.

Lance Cpl. Jared Schwartz became the first of five Marines based at Twentynine Palms, Calif., court-martialed in 1999 for refusing to take the vaccine. He was sentenced to 30 days in the brig and a bad-conduct discharge. His conviction was followed by those of Lance Cpl. Michael Metzig, Lance Cpl. Michael McIntyre, Lance Cpl. Jared Johnston and Lance Cpl. Jason Austin, all sentenced to 25 to 30 days confinement and bad-conduct discharges.
After years of controversy that included stories linking the vaccine to medical problems — and, in some cases, death — a federal judge temporarily halted the program in October 2004. The judge ruled that troops could not be forced to take the shots because the Food and Drug Administration had not properly certified the vaccine as effective against airborne anthrax spores.

In December 2005, the FDA did just that, issuing a final order and licensing the vaccine for the prevention of airborne anthrax. Little more than a year later, the vaccine was again mandated, required for all troops traveling to the Middle East or South Korea for 15 or more consecutive days.

An all-Marine message in March 2007 announcing the resumption of the mandatory program makes clear the ramifications Marines face if they refuse the vaccine.
“Commanders will manage immunization refusals as they would address any refusal to obey a lawful order,” the message states.

Reports of refusals are down from where they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
That’s true of the II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“Since the anthrax vaccine became mandatory to those deploying in the CentCom area of operation, II MEF has not discharged any Marine or sailor for refusal to accept the vaccine,” II MEF spokesman Lt. Col. Curtis Hill said.

I MEF spokeswoman 1st Lt. Lisa Lawrence said no one in I MEF has been discharged for refusing to take the anthrax vaccine since the Pentagon’s mandatory inoculation program was reinstated early last year.