Shot to Hell

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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.

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.

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.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin