- Tom Rempfer is ready at a moment's notice
to pack a bag and head out to any part of the world to fly combat missions
in his A-10 fighter aircraft. The Connecticut Air National Guard captain
says he is prepared to put his life on the line anyplace, anytime to protect
the interests of the Untied States.
- But earlier this month, Rempfer's commanders
gave him a direct order he says he cannot obey.
- They ordered him to roll up his sleeve
and accept a vaccination against anthrax, a biological weapon believed
to be in Saddam Hussein's arsenal.
- "We were given the choice, take
the vaccine or be grounded from your flying duties as A-10 attack pilots,"
- "This is the only order I've ever
had to refuse," says Air National Guard Maj. Dom Possemato, who shares
Rempfer's dilemma. "I'm willing to accept that an Iraqi or Iranian
might shoot me and put me in a grave, but I'm not willing to let my country
do it with an unproved vaccination."
- Of 35 pilots in Possemato and Rempfer's
squadron, nine have refused the shots.
- The vaccination issue has been percolating
since December 1997 when Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered all of
the nation's 2.4 million soldiers and sailors (active duty, reserves, and
national guard) to receive the anthrax vaccination.
- Pentagon officials insist the shots,
which began in August and will continue for the next five years, are safe
and effective. But many of those facing anthrax vaccinations aren't so
- The issue is critical because vaccination
is a cornerstone of U.S. policy to protect the nation's forces from biological
warfare whether waged by Saddam Hussein or free-lance terrorists. Planners
are seeking to develop a dozen or more vaccines to safeguard American troops
from a wide variety of biological and chemical weapons threats.
- In short, it holds the promise in the
minds of some military strategists of rendering American forces immune
from a particularly deadly form of terror.
- But to many on the sharp end of the needle,
the real terror springs from a U.S. policy forcing fearful soldiers to
be injected with a vaccine they believe is neither safe nor effective,
and may result in long-term health problems.
- "In some ways they are playing Russian
roulette, except the bullet goes really, really slow. The bullet may not
hit you for 20 years. We just don't know," says Mark Zaid, a Washington
lawyer active in the vaccination issue.
- "When the government starts to abuse
our children - that which is sacred to us - that is when the line in the
sand gets drawn," says Tim Watson, a Vietnam veteran whose son is
a Marine worried about the vaccination. "This is morally wrong. This
is communism when they do things like this."
- Not everyone is concerned about the anthrax
vaccinations, however. More than 166,000 service members have already received
the first of the set of six shots. Only 76 have refused, says Pentagon
spokesman Jim Turner.
- "It is just a handful of people,"
Turner says of the refusers. "I think that is absolutely remarkable.
It's been a highly successful program by anyone's measure."
- Those opposed to the vaccination policy
say the number is low because military leaders are threatening to court-martial
anyone who declines the shots.
- So far no one has faced an actual court-martial,
though that may change soon. A U.S. Air Force airman at Travis Air Force
Base in California may become the first American to be tried in a military
court for refusing the shots.
- All other refusers have lost pay, been
fined, restricted to base or ship, and lost rank before being tossed out
of the military under a general discharge.
- The General Accounting Office, the investigative
arm of Congress, is looking into the vaccination policy. And concerned
parents and spouses of military personnel have called a town meeting for
Feb. 22 in Ilion, N.Y., to discuss the issue.
- The fears of many are fueled by mistrust
of military leaders who seem to them unresponsive to their concerns. They
point to soldiers being contaminated during early nuclear weapons testing
in the 1940s and 1950s, and combat forces exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam
in the 1960s. They also cite the lingering mystery surrounding an array
of illnesses suffered by many Gulf War veterans in the 1990s.
- Critics say the Pentagon should suspend
the anthrax vaccination program pending comprehensive and independent testing
of the long-term effects.
- Some suggest the United States should
adopt a voluntary vaccination program like Britain's. Roughly 30 percent
of British military personnel opted for the anthrax vaccination, while
70 percent declined, says a spokesman for Britain's Defense Ministry.
- "I don't have good advice for service
members," says Meryl Nass, an emergency-room doctor at a Maine hospital,
who has spent 10 years researching anthrax and the vaccine issue. "I
wouldn't take the vaccine myself. But I'm not planning a career in the
- Nass and other critics use the Internet
to provide an information clearinghouse for anyone skeptical of the anthrax
- The Defense Department has tried to counter
with a Web site of its own, but the site doesn't directly address many
pointed questions raised by critics.
- "How can I trust a government that
admitted to conducting secret experiments on military personnel in the
past?" asks a young female sailor in an e-mail message. "Had
I known when I was a civilian that I could be injected with experimental
chemicals and medicines without my consent, I would not have joined."
- Turner says the vaccine program is not
experimental. "We have a vaccine that is safe, effective, and FDA
approved," he says. "It has been out there since 1970 with an
excellent safety record. How much testing is enough?"