Reservists Leave to Avoid Anthrax Vaccine

ByDavid Briscoe

W A S H I N G T O N, Oct. 11, 2000 -- Countering military assertions that refusals to take the anthrax vaccine are having little impact, a congressional study finds it is the leading cause cited by pilotsand aircrew members for leaving National Guard and reserve units.

The Pentagon questioned the results today, saying guard andreserve strength and readiness is unaffected. But officersacknowledged they have no data of their own on how many reservistsare leaving rather than taking the shots.

Combined with congressional testimony from former and presentreservists claiming persecution for refusing the vaccine, theGeneral Accounting Office survey adds to congressional pressure onthe Pentagon to give up its beleaguered vaccination program. Avaccine shortage has limited them to forces in East Asia and thePersian Gulf area.

2,000 Lost?In a House Government Reform Committee hearing today,commercial pilot Tom Heemstra estimated that 2,100 pilots from theAir National Guard and Air Force Reserves would be lost if thevaccination program continues. A year ago, Heemstra had alsocomplained in congressional testimony about having to take theanthrax vaccine as a squadron commander in the Indiana Air NationalGuard.

Heemstra, of Lexington, Ky., who said he was forced to retirefor his refusal, said anthrax has caused more than 200 resignationsso far at several bases around the country. He provided thecommittee with a list of coded names of some pilots who have left,saying military authorities are falsely reporting the numbers ofdepartures linked to the vaccine.

Accusing Pentagon officers of abusing their power, he said,“They coerced, intimidated, threatened and punished in order toenforce this program.”

Committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., holding his secondanthrax hearing this month, accused the director of the AirNational Guard of lying about the effect of the vaccine ondepartures from the guard, and suggested Maj. Gen. Paul A. WeaverJr. should face court-martial.

“The Defense Department has insulted the honor and integrity ofanyone who has dared question the anthrax vaccine program,” Burtonsaid.

Weaver responded at the hearing by saying he never meant tomislead Congress or guard members during a closed-circuit briefingon anthrax at which he defended a previous declaration that onlyone guardsman had refused the vaccine. Weaver said this did notinclude those who had made no formal commitment to the guard andsimply left, since guard service is entirely voluntary.

“It is very difficult to get an accurate picture,” he said.

Maj. Gen. Randall West, Pentagon senior adviser on anthrax, toldthe committee that four of six reserve units show increasedreadiness over past years. There are no indications that concernover the anthrax vaccine was a factor in the decreased readiness ofthe other two, he said.

A ‘Very Small Minority’ “While there have been individual cases of reserve componentmembers refusing the vaccination, documented losses from such casesare a very small minority,” he said.

West said the GAO survey focused exclusively on anthrax, whilethe military feels surveys of why people leave are more reliable ifthey do not mention anthrax and simply asked for reasons. In the GAO survey, 25 percent of those who left their units,either through requested transfer or resignation, cited themandatory anthrax immunization as the No. 1 factor in theirdecision. No other factor ranked higher, it said.

Additionally, 18 percent of those left in the units, said theyplanned to leave in the next six months, with the vaccine also theleading factor cited.

The anonymous survey said that 86 percent of respondents takingthe vaccine reported “experiencing some type of local or systemicreactions,” such as a knot in the arm or joint pain.

The data came in a preliminary version of a more exhaustive GAOreport released for the hearing. The agency sent out 1,253questionnaires to guard and reserve pilots and technical crewmembers, with two-thirds responding.