March 11, 1999

Armed Services opt to discharge those who refuse vaccine

New York Times

FAIRFIELD, Calif. -- The short, happy military career of Jeffrey A. Bettendorf ended abruptly this week. After threatening him with court-martial, the Air Force discharged Airman 1st Class Bettendorf under "other than honorable conditions" because he refused to take a vaccine that the Pentagon says could save his life one day.

The vaccine is meant to protect against an attack with anthrax, one of the deadliest biological agents turned into a weapon. But Bettendorf, once a senior airman with an untarnished record, came to believe that the Pentagon had never proved the vaccine's safety and effectiveness.

Hours after signing the papers that ended his service after nearly seven years, Bettendorf said there were other jobs "where people aren't all over you, saying what you can and can't do with your body."

Bettendorf is not alone in his defiance. The Los Angeles times reported that the Navy said on Thursday that 29 members on the Norfolk, Va.-based nuclear aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt have been demoted, fined, jailed for up to 45 days, or given extra duty for refusing to undergo the mandatory anthrax shots.

Sixteen months after Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen announced that all 2.4 million military personnel, whether on active duty or in the reserves or national guard, would be vaccinated, the Pentagon is facing a rebellion from a small, but growing number of those who have refused.

Only 100 or so of the 218,000 military personnel who have started receiving the first of six shots that are required have resisted and subsequently been punished. So the Pentagon dismisses the resistance as insignificant, although officials stopped counting how many refuse the vaccine.

But in spite of furious efforts by the Pentagon to tamp down what it considers insidious misinformation about the vaccine, the resistance continues. Efforts have included senior officers taking the vaccine in public and an unusual memorandum to all Marines from the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Charles C. Krulak.

"I think it speaks to the undercurrent of distrust of the government and the military," said Lt. Gen. Ronald R. Blanck, the surgeon general of the Army, the service that oversees the vaccination program. "Agent Orange. Nuclear tests in the '50s. People say, `How can you say this is safe?' Clearly, we have a credibility problem."

The Pentagon requires a variety of basic vaccinations. While the Pentagon previously has vaccinated soldiers against biological agents, including 150,000 vaccinated against anthrax in the Persian Gulf War, it has never before tried to inoculate the entire military to counter a threat from a biological or chemical weapon.

There is no evidence that any army has used anthrax in combat, but the Pentagon has grown increasingly concerned by the threat of biological or chemical attack. Anthrax, a naturally occurring bacteria found in domesticated animals, can with relative ease be produced as dry spores that, when inhaled, cause death within a few days.

A vaccine was developed in the 1950s and approved by the Food and Drug Administration for general use in 1970.

The refusals began with troops in the Pacific and the Persian Gulf, who were the first to receive the vaccination because of their proximity to North Korea and Iraq -- countries believed to have biological weapons. The number of refusals is expected to grow as the vaccination program moves to bases in the United States.

To refuse the vaccination is to disobey an order. Each of the services is responsible for its own discipline, but because commanders cannot force the shots on subordinates, most cases have ended with discharges -- some general, some bad conduct.

The Marine Corps, in particular, has been hit hard. More than two dozen Marines in Okinawa, Japan, have refused. At the sprawling desert base at Twentynine Palms, Calif., another 10 have declined.

The resisters cite a plethora of reasons. They note that there is no way to test the vaccine on the form of anthrax used in weapons and they criticize the dearth of follow-up research on those who did receive it in the Gulf War. They also point to two FDA reports critical of the vaccine's manufacturer, the Michigan Biologic Products Institute, a state agency sold last September to a private company, the Bioport Corp. of Lansing, Mich., which a month later received a $29 million contract from the Pentagon to produce the vaccine.

The Pentagon insists the program is safe and effective, saying the criticism of the manufacturer had no effect on the vaccine.