Parting Shot

Forced out of the military over refusal to take part in a controversial anthrax immunization program, an ex-serviceman finds his protest was in vein

When U.S. military officials recently admitted the mandatory anthrax immunization program was in trouble and could be shut down due to supply problems, many who had fought against the program were heartened.

But for Jeffrey Bettendorf, 27, the first serviceman to face a court-martial over his refusal to submit to anthrax shots, the news was bittersweet.

"It makes me upset because I could have been in the military still," he says. "I like where I am now, but I took a pay cut. And I liked being in the military."

Bettendorf, who ended up receiving an "other than honorable" discharge in March 1999 after an otherwise clean 7-year military record, is struggling to rebuild his life in Phoenix.

As a kid growing up in Tucson, he knew he wanted to join the Air Force, just like his dad, and spend his career in the military. Bettendorf enlisted just out of high school, completed basic training at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, spent two years in Turkey, then landed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.

That was where Bettendorf and his family planned to stay. He and his wife Katie had a daughter, owned a home and were caring for foster children.

But that all changed in 1998, when Bettendorf was ordered to begin the six-dose series of shots designed to protect him from an attack of deadly anthrax, a biological warfare agent in the arsenals of several countries. Defense Secretary William Cohen announced plans to immunize all 2.4 million active and reserve military members in late 1997, but Bettendorf became convinced the vaccine hadn't been tested for long-term consequences and that it might not be effective. He read reports of troops getting sick after taking the shots, and he'd seen illness from it firsthand at Travis.

He decided not to get inoculated. The first to resist at Travis, he didn't waver even after his base commander announced that anyone who refused the shots would be incarcerated.

Bettendorf, then an Airman 1st Class, was demoted, fined and assigned to extra duty as punishment for disobeying orders.

While his case was pending, he had been a fixture in the local press as well as national newspapers and television shows.

"I felt that was the only form of protection that I had," he says. "I was talking to anyone who would listen."

Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C. attorney who represented Bettendorf, says his commanders wanted to make an example out of him. "His superiors wanted to send a message to others who might refuse that it will not be tolerated, and that punishment will be harsh," he says.

But Zaid says negative publicity proved damning, leading officials to abort the court-martial plans.

Bettendorf avoided punishment, including a possible six-month prison term, by accepting the discharge in March 1999.

"By then, I was so tired of fighting that I just gave up," he says.

Air Force officials say the discharge is the most severe administrative punishment an airman can receive. Since the program began, officials say, more than 460,000 troops have received the shots. More than 350 people have refused, dozens have been court-martialed and hundreds of others have left the military to avoid immunization ("Shot to Hell," Laura Laughlin, January 27).

After selling his house and returning to Arizona, Bettendorf worked for an asphalt company, a cattle trucking firm and an accounting business before taking a pay cut in December to work for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. He says his military discharge never came up in job interviews.

"We figured if anyone asked, we'd tell them the story, but nobody ever questioned it," Katie Bettendorf says.

Bettendorf hoped employers would view his history in a positive way. "They might say, 'He stood up for what he believed.'"

While defense officials and legislators were discussing the fate of the anthrax immunization program in Congress this July, the Bettendorfs, who are expecting their second child and caring for two foster daughters, were living in an 850-square-foot rental home in the north Valley. In the house with no air conditioning, Katie Bettendorf ran a home day-care business -- something she had also done in California -- to help make ends meet. This month, the family moved to a bigger rental home, with air conditioning, not far from their old one.

Bettendorf believes they are at least a year away from being able to buy another house. And that will depend on whether he still qualifies for loan assistance as a veteran. He plans to begin studying for an information technology degree at DeVry Institute of Technology in November. The school has contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs to determine whether he is entitled to $35,000 in educational benefits.

After leaving the service, Bettendorf stayed involved in the anti-anthrax efforts for a while. Then he quit, saying he needed a rest from a campaign that didn't seem to be getting anywhere.

But Congressional hearings last year resulted in a scathing House report in February calling for suspension of the program until further research and testing can be conducted. In May, 35 members of Congress, including Arizona Representative Jim Kolbe, called for an immediate halt to the program. Then, while congressional hearings this summer detailed continuing licensing and financial problems with Bioport, the sole vaccine maker, Cohen announced the already scaled-back program would be slowed even further, so that only those troops in the highest-risk areas will continue to get the vaccine.

Pentagon officials insist the shots are safe, effective and necessary to defend our troops, and say they still hope to immunize the entire military. But some authorities are acknowledging that the dwindling supply could cripple those plans.

 
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