Shot to Hell

Mandatory participation in military's anthrax vaccine program pushes plunger on medical controversy

Systemic reactions, including things like fatigue, joint and muscle pain and flulike symptoms, can occur in up to 35 percent of the cases. The military says serious reactions requiring hospitalization can occur once in every 50,000 doses and severe allergic reactions might occur once in every 100,000 doses.

Jane Orient, the Tucson physician, disagrees with the government's contention that the vaccine is safe and necessary.

"We may be endangering our troops by giving it," she says.

The Pentagon has ordered all 2.4 million active and reserve members of 
the military to receive a vaccine designed to protect them against a 
biological anthrax attack.
Paolo Vescia
The Pentagon has ordered all 2.4 million active and reserve members of the military to receive a vaccine designed to protect them against a biological anthrax attack.

Her organization, Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, represents about 1,500 doctors across the country who are interested in protecting the American public from domestic emergencies, including biological attacks. In a statement to a congressional subcommittee, the group questioned the wisdom and safety of the program and suggested efforts be made toward better protection measures. In a telephone interview, Orient says such methods would include better detection and warning systems and further research into antibiotics to immediately treat anthrax exposure and decontaminant foam. Orient says the program should be stopped while questions are addressed, or made voluntary.

Meryl Nass suggests the government also work on developing anthrax antidotes as well as better arms control. She also suggests the program be halted.

Two bills in Congress propose both those things. A House bill sponsored by U.S. Representative Walter Jones (R-N.C.) would make the program voluntary until the FDA approves a new vaccine or a new, reduced course of inoculation. Another sponsored by U.S. Representative Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) would suspend the vaccinations until the National Institutes of Health can study the issue.

No members of the Arizona Congressional delegation are signed on as co-sponsors to either bill.

Representatives of most members of Arizona's Congressional delegation could not be reached for comment about either the vaccination program or the proposed House resolutions. A spokesperson for Republican Senator Jon Kyl says he supports the program. Representative Ed Pastor, the only Democrat in Congress from Arizona, hasn't taken a stand on the issue, according to his spokesperson.

Senator John McCain -- who often cites his military background in his presidential campaign -- did not return phone calls seeking comment on the anthrax issue.

Opponents of the program -- including some military personnel, many concerned mothers and relatives who have found each other on the Internet ( -- are trying to drum up support for legislation that stops the program. They don't believe the general public is really aware of the vaccination plans. They wonder why it hasn't come up in the presidential race, noting that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military has received much more press, yet affects only a small percentage of those in the service.

Schuyler McCorkle, the retired Phoenix major, says he is free to talk about the controversy now only because he is a private citizen. "My concern is I have a lot of friends down there [at the Arizona Air National Guard]. And I want to be able to live long and be able to go out and play golf with some of those guys in our 60s and 70s. I don't want them dropping dead because they took a bad vaccine."

He was one of 2,500 people who signed a petition sent to President Bill Clinton supporting the House bills that would suspend the program. Mark Zaid, the Washington, D.C., attorney who has represented servicemen disciplined for refusing the vaccine, organized that petition drive. He says he's received no response from the White House.

Major Sonnie Bates is speaking up, too. And his stellar career in the Air Force is in ruins because of it.

The highest-ranking officer in the Air Force to face a court-martial and up to five years imprisonment for refusing to take the shots, Bates says life as he knew it is over.

"My career is over," he says in an interview. "The decision I had to make was do I want my health or do I want my career?"

A pilot with more than 13 years of service, Bates says what he saw at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when he arrived there in August convinced him he would be jeopardizing his health -- and hurting his family -- if he agreed to start the series of inoculations.

"In all my life, I have never seen sickness of this magnitude, especially in a group of people that should be physically fit for battle," Bates testified during a congressional hearing in October.

Bates, 35, says he wanted to be a pilot since he was 4 years old. And he served his country without question until he was transferred to Dover. In fact, before going to Delaware, Bates asked to start the series of shots at his former base. But he was told to wait until he got to his new base.

There, he found 12 people in his squadron alone with unusual or disabling illnesses that began after they took the vaccine. Many of the problems involved crippling joint and bone pain, autoimmune system disorders and memory problems.

Bates learned that more than 60 reserve pilots had quit rather than take the series of shots and that dozens had reported adverse reactions to the Department of Defense. Before Bates arrived, an alarmed base commander temporarily halted the shot program, but he was removed and replaced with a pro-anthrax commander, according to news reports and interviews with a Dover reservist.

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