US Navy Punishes 23 Sailors
For Refusing Anthrax Shots
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Navy said Friday it had punished 23 sailors bound for the Gulf who refused compulsory anthrax shots the Defense Department said will protect them against the deadly biological agent.
The group is the largest to refuse the vaccine, which Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered for all members of the military over a year ago.
Those who refuse the vaccine believe it has not been thoroughly tested and could damage their health.
Lt. Cmdr. Mark McDonald, a spokesman for the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, told Reuters the 23 sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier were demoted by one rank, given 45 days extra duty, restricted to the vessel for 45 days and ordered to pay fines equal to one month's pay.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is based in Norfolk, Va., is due to leave on March 26 for a six-month tour that includes time in the Gulf, a potential anthrax zone.
"If you are going into an area where you face a potential anthrax biological weapon, then you want to be as well-protected as possible. These men are going to the Gulf and this is one of the reasons they had to have it," said McDonald.
He said aside from the 23 sailors, all 5,300 people on board the vessel were inoculated against anthrax, an infectious disease which usually affects livestock but can be spread to humans.
The punishment was less severe than one meted out by the Air Force in California Wednesday when it discharged Airman First Class Jeffrey Bettendorf for refusing the vaccine. In January nine Air Guard pilots from a Connecticut A-10 squadron left the service rather than get the injection.
Refusing to have the shot amounts to refusing to follow an order which can result in discharge from the force. McDonald said the Navy felt its actions against the sailors, who went on trial while on a training exercise off the coast of North Carolina, was an appropriate level of punishment.
Pentagon officials estimate about 100 servicemen and women of the 218,000 who have had the first of six prescribed anthrax shots have resisted having the injections.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Mike Doubleday told reporters Thursday the vaccine had been used since the 1970s and was safe.
"There are individuals who are still employed by the services, particularly the Army, who have actually been receiving this vaccine for 25 years without any ill effects," he said.
"Our belief is that service people who have any doubts about this should talk to their chain of command, the senior NCOs, chief petty officers to learn more about it," he said, adding that Cohen and other top officials had been vaccinated.
The sole aim of the injection, he said, was to protect military staff who may at some future time be put into a situation where anthrax was a threat.