Shot to Hell

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"It's a national security issue," she says.

Schuyler McCorkle is not the type of guy who is leery of shots. In fact, the opposite is true. As a commercial airline pilot and an officer in the Arizona Air National Guard, he made sure he always got all his immunizations and even annual flu shots. He felt he needed that to protect himself against strange diseases, biological warfare attacks, as well as common illnesses he might encounter while overseas or while breathing recirculated air in the cockpit of a plane.

And so when the 20-year Guard veteran was asked about a year ago to help implement the anthrax inoculation program for about 900 members of the 161st Refueling Wing at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, he didn't question the wisdom of the decision. A firm believer that the military should be protected against the deadly anthrax virus, he set about scheduling the shots, a complicated task given the fact that the program calls for a carefully timed regimen.

But when some members of his unit came to him with questions about the safety and effectiveness of the shots, McCorkle took a closer look at the program. And he didn't like what he saw.

"I started researching it and looked at all the testimony that was put before Congress, and a large portion of it was expert testimony. The military and the DOD [Department of Defense] tend to put their spin on it, saying, 'Oh, [these claims of adverse reactions] -- it's hysteria.'

"But I'm wondering why these experts would be testifying before Congress unless there was a problem. People who previously had been very healthy now aren't," he says.

McCorkle, 42, says his concern over the vaccine was a key factor in his decision to retire from his full-time job with the Guard in June. While many of those who had to deploy to high risk areas abroad had already begun the series of shots, the unit-wide inoculation was scheduled to begin in October. (It has since been delayed.) McCorkle would have had to decide whether to start the shots or face punishment and possible loss of benefits. And any adverse reaction, even something as minor as a sore arm, could have affected his career as a commercial airline pilot.

Across the country, active and reserve military pilots are concerned about the possible impact of the anthrax vaccine on their lucrative commercial careers. Many of them are choosing to abandon their military careers rather than jeopardize their ability to fly.

McCorkle says a job as an airline pilot can mean millions of dollars in salary. And he estimates that about half of the Guard pilots he knows are either also employed as commercial pilots or trying to get a job with an airline.

McCorkle, married and the father of two in a single-income Phoenix household, says he considered the risk of losing his military salary because of illness or disciplinary action when deciding on the anthrax shots. But he also weighed the effect on his airline salary and benefits.

"I said, 'Is the Guard or military going to cover us for lost earnings and pension?' The answer is no. The best we'd get is a cup of coffee at the VA hospital," he says.

Air Force Master Sergeant Robert Ramirez, 42, is in constant pain.

His hips, legs, back and joints ache so much that he can't perform the simplest movements without suffering.

"If I move my arm, my elbow hurts. If I move my hand, my wrist hurts. If I get up, my knees hurt. If I walk, my ankles hurt," he says.

He can't bend over. He can't get on his knees to pray. He can't play with his youngest, 8-year-old son.

Every six weeks, he says, a large blood blister shows up on his skin. The last one, his sixth, was so big it had to be cut open by a doctor; it drained for three days.

Ramirez thinks his ailments were caused by the anthrax shots he received. But he doesn't know for sure, and doctors he has seen have little if any experience with anthrax cases.

A 17-year veteran of the service, he is still at work at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, trying to last another two years or so until he can retire. Meanwhile, Ramirez is writing to congressmen, asking them to take a hard look at the anthrax vaccine program.

Ramirez says he knew little about it when he was told he had to begin the shot series. Stationed at a South Korean air base and recovering from hernia surgery, he remembers seeing an Air Force news channel video depicting military authorities getting the vaccine. He says the troops there weren't told much else about the shots.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin