He's been grounded, stopped from competing in military running events, dropped from a squadron program to tutor and mentor elementary school children and may be thrown out of the Air Force with the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge.
But Capt. Clifton Volpe said he had no choice but to refuse an order to take the controversial anthrax vaccine after talking to several other service members who became ill after getting the shots.
"The thing that really turned me around was talking to the people who testified to Congress about their reactions,'' Volpe said.
Volpe, a 1995 graduate of the Air Force Academy, flew VIPs from a C-21 Lear Jet squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., until October, when he was ordered to take the vaccine in preparation for missions in the Persian Gulf.
Commanders, concerned that Volpe was making a bad decision, flew him to Scott Air Force Base to meet with his commander, Col. Bradley Baker, commander of the 375th Airlift Wing, and medical experts.
Volpe and the wing both said that he agreed to take the shot after the 2 1/2 -hour meeting. Volpe said he agreed on the condition he be allowed to have prevaccination blood drawn to later compare with his blood if he later became ill.
But when he went to have the blood drawn, he reconsidered.
"I sat there and agonized for about an hour, trying to figure out this whole thing: what was most important to me in my life, what were my principles,'' he said. "I can tell you from my Air Force Academy days, a lot of the training is how to make good decisions, how to be a leader. You're taught not to just blindly follow orders. And this order was just wrong.
"That day I refused the shot was one of the most difficult days of my life. I knew at that point that my career was over -- no more flying, a possible federal conviction.''
When Volpe refused the shot despite all the efforts to convince him otherwise, his commanders still hoped that the impact of a reprimand and $3,200 fine could rehabilitate him, wing spokesman Lt. Col. Allan Dahncke said.
"That was offered to him in the hopes that he would change his mind, that he would take his shots and become fully qualified as a C-21 pilot,'' Dahncke said. "He has forced someone else to pick up his load, to go fly his missions in high-threat areas.''
Two weeks ago, Volpe submitted his resignation, claiming that he had been subjected to repeated harassment since refusing.
But his commanders handed it back, saying he could not resign because they already had told him he was being considered for discharge.
Volpe could receive anything from an honorable to an "other than honorable'' discharge, the administrative equivalent of a dishonorable discharge.
Defense Secretary William Cohen announced in December 1997 that all 2.4 million active duty, National Guard and Reserve troops would be vaccinated against anthrax over the next several years.
Anthrax is a livestock disease that Pentagon experts believe is one of the most likely biological weapons to be used against American troops.
But when the shots began a few months later, troops began refusing.
In February, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Randall West, the Pentagon's special advisor for anthrax and biological defense affairs, wrote U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., that 351 service members had refused the vaccine while 400,000 others had accepted it.
The refusals resulted in 350 nonjudicial punishments and 36 courts-martial, West wrote.
But opponents said those numbers don't include hundreds of National Guard and Reserve members who have resigned or requested reassignment to lower priority units to avoid the shots.
The Pentagon said the vaccine is safe and necessary to protect against anthrax weapons believed to be in the hands of at least a dozen potential enemies. It claims the refusers are succumbing to misinformation and fear-mongering spread on the Internet.
But opponents point to Food and Drug Administration inspections that show repeated quality and production problems at the vaccine manufacturing plant, hundreds of people with unexplained illnesses that arose after receiving the vaccine and no proof it is safe or effective against anthrax weapons.
Some Gulf War veterans believe the vaccine may be responsible for the mysterious illnesses they have.
Last month, a special committee of the Institute of Medicine of
the National Academy of Sciences that is looking into the anthrax
vaccine wrote West that there is no way to tell whether the vaccine has
long-term side effects because no one has done the necessary studies.
Originally Published, April 24, 2000 Belleville News Democrat, Belleville,
(c) 2000, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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