A growing resistance to the Pentagon's mandatory anthrax vaccinations is shoving Air Mobility Command into the national spotlight, as one of its pilots is choosing to face a court martial rather than take the shots.
Maj. Sonnie Bates, a C-5 pilot at Dover Air Force Base, Del., has refused to take the vaccine because he believes it could make him ill.
Bates and other Dover personnel who say they already are ill from the vaccine were featured Sunday on CBS Television's “60 Minutes” program.
Across the country, at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., Staff Sgt. Jerry
Gilreath has accepted demotion to Airman 1st Class and 30 days in correctional
custody rather than take the shots. Air Force officials say he is being
given a chance to “re-blue” and recommit himself to the Air
Force; his wife says they are trying to brainwash him.
And at another California base, a Mascoutah High School graduate recently sacrificed his 12 years of military service because he refused the vaccine.
“I gave up my whole career,” said Douglas Ward, who in November gave up his job as an intelligence analyst with a Reserve unit at March Air Force Base. “Me and my wife sat here — she knew this was killing me, that this was the hardest decision of my whole life.
“But we have one kid and we want to have more. And my wife said, ‘If you get the shot, we're not having any more.’
“I've done all the research I can possibly think of, and I'm not coming up with the answers I thought could make me comfortable taking the vaccine.”
At Air Mobility Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, officials said the refusals have not interfered with the command's ability to do its job.
“We've not seen a mission impact,” said spokesman Capt. Jeff Glenn. But he confirmed reports that, because of the large numbers of transfers, some Guard and Reserve units last year were “at a lower rate than they wanted to be.”
That does not bode well for the command's future — much of the airlift and aerial refueling capacity belongs to Guard and Reserve units.
Vaccine opponents, who have an organized movement on the Internet, estimate that at least 400 Guard and Reserve pilots have transferred to other units or inactive status or left the military because of the vaccine.
Reserve crews also say that units often list reasons other than the vaccine on transfer requests and delay reporting some transfers and resignations to keep their readiness ratings up.
Throughout the Air Force, 88 active duty members had refused the vaccine as of Dec. 22, Glenn said.
The highest ranking member to date has been Bates, who declined to accept an administrative punishment.
Bates feels the vaccine is not safe and submitted his resignation from the Air Force. But that was put on hold when he was charged, Glenn said.
“The Maj. Sonnie Bates case is not really about anthrax, its about his failure to obey a military order,” Glenn said. “As a military officer myself, who has taken the anthrax (vaccine), its not up to me to decide which orders I'm going to obey.”
Bates has said that he believes he was ordered to take the vaccine as retaliation for his testimony last fall before a congressional committee investigating the vaccine.
Last week, Bates waived his right to the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing, saying that the Air Force was just going to use it to argue for the vaccine.
On “60 Minutes,” other Dover airmen described the illnesses that hit them within hours of getting the shot.
An Air Force Reservist at Dover said their stories were just the tip of the iceberg.
“I would say there's three to five times as many at Dover who haven't come forward,” said Tech. Sgt. Earl Stauffer.
Air Force officials admit that Dover has had the highest rate of complaints about the vaccine, but doubt the vaccine is to blame.
As of Jan. 18, 5,079 shots had been given at Dover, Glenn said. Since complete vaccination consists of three shots over six weeks and three more shots six months apart, that number equals about 1,550 people who have received at least one shot.
But only 65 active duty and 29 reservists had Vaccine Adverse Reaction Reports filed, Glenn said.
“And there's been more than 30 different symptoms reported with no apparent commonality except for local reactions and brief, flu like symptoms,” he said.
Last year, Dr. Gregory Poland, chief of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group with the prestigious Mayo Clinic, looked at 54 of the Dover reports.
In an Oct. 20 letter to the Air Force's chief of preventive medicine, he stated that all of the cases “appear to be explained by pre-existing illnesses, current illnesses, other concomitant illnesses or stressors, or known side effects of anthrax vaccine.”
Opponents disagree, saying they don't even trust the military's numbers, much less its explanations.
Stauffer and other activists say their count at Dover is 114 – 82 active duty and 32 reservists – as of Jan. 15.
“All the symptoms that they mentioned are signs of auto immune problems,” Stauffer said. “No, we can't prove it's from the vaccine, but it's mighty damn suspicious.”
Originally Published, February 7, 2000, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 2000, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill
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