Shot to Hell

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

Bates was grounded in December after he refused to begin the shots. He asked to resign but was turned down. He was then offered an Article 15, a kind of military plea bargain in which he admits his error, gives up his right to trial and is punished. He says he considered agreeing to this, but was told he would still be ordered to start the vaccinations.

Bates says he could not in good conscience obey what he considers to be an unlawful order -- particularly in peacetime. If it were wartime, he says, he would probably take the shot. Then a disabling or fatal reaction could be considered a casualty of war.

Bates' wife doesn't work. And the youngest of their three children is autistic. Bates says he wants to stay healthy to be able to help care for his son in later years. But Bates also suspects that the autism may have been triggered by a series of inoculations the boy received as an infant.

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.

Bates says he expects to be railroaded through a court-martial, convicted by higher-ranking officers and dishonorably discharged.

Bates may be the highest-ranking military man to face a court-martial for refusing to take the shots, but he is not the first. That widely publicized case involved Airman 1st Class Jeffrey Bettendorf, an Arizonan who faced a court-martial for refusing the shots at Travis Air Force Base in California. Early last year, he aborted the proceeding by agreeing to an "other than honorable" discharge.

Many others have received other forms of discipline for refusing the shots. While no exact tally is available, a review of news articles about publicized cases shows punishment can range from court-martials and dishonorable discharges to reduction in rank and pay to confinement.

Bettendorf, who says he had a "spotless" record before refusing the shots, was at first demoted a grade, given 45 days extra duty and reprimanded. When he again said he wouldn't take the shot, he faced the court-martial.

A Texas airman entered into an agreement that allowed him to serve 21 days in confinement, be docked $500 in pay and receive a nonpunitive discharge. A Marine in San Diego was court-martialed for disobeying an order, reduced in rank, forced to give-up two-thirds of his pay, sentenced to 30 days confinement and given a bad-conduct discharge. An Alaskan airman with only months to go in her stint in the Air Force was demoted to the lowest possible rank when she refused the shots.

Others get into trouble for merely questioning the safety of the program. At the Marine Air Corps Station in Yuma, some who expressed reservations about taking the shot were called on the carpet and pressured into taking the vaccine. Those who refused were sent to the brig, according to one person familiar with the situation who was fearful of being identified.

Captain Winston Jimenez, public affairs officer at the Yuma installation, contradicts this, however, saying that out of approximately 2,500 troops that have begun the shots there, none has refused and none has been disciplined. This is because of "a tremendous job of informing [and] educating," he says.

When and if Sonnie Bates is given a less-than-honorable discharge, it will cost him not only his job and salary, but all of his benefits, including medical and retirement. And such a black mark would effectively erase his years of federal service were he to apply for a job at another federal agency, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, he says.

"It's just going to be an absolute hit for our family," Bates says. "But I think we'll be the better for it. I tell my kids happiness is not tied to financial means. You have to fight for what you think is right."

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