The Pentagon’s Vaccine Mutiny (6/00)

When the Pentagon’s plan to inoculate all 2.4 million US service men, women, and reservists with an obscure anthrax vaccine surfaced almost three years ago, few people anticipated the opposition that would emerge. During an environmental review period, "public comments" submitted by veterans’ rights group Citizen Soldier and others raised questions about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, previously used by only a small number of workers, and urged that independent civilian scientists and groups be allowed to participate in studies. Typically, the Pentagon ignored these suggestions, preferring to storm ahead on its own.

Yet, from the day inoculations began in March 1998, soldiers and reservists challenged the program. In retrospect, it appears that the military command was unprepared for the degree of resistance it encountered. With each refusal, the response became more punitive, eventually eroding the trust between commander and com- manded that is essential in military units.

This new wave of resistance is part of a growing sensitivity and concern for envir- onmental issues among the young. Revelations concerning the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, an issue that remains largely unresolved to this day, played an important part in convincing many people that they have a personal stake in reducing the threat from environmental toxins. Consider the popularity of Julia Roberts’ recent film, Erin Brockovich.

For many years, workers didn’t trust environmentalists, largely due to the stereotyping of these activists as elitists who would sacrifice jobs to save some endangered species. But when young service members and their families began to approach Citizen Soldier with requests for information and assistance about vaccine refusal, they often cited Agent Orange or Gulf War syndrome as reasons for not trusting the military’s claims about the new vaccine’s safety.

The new refusers also understood how to use the media and Internet to build support. While national newspapers and network TV news paid little attention, local TV and newspapers jumped on the story: Sincere GIs were putting their careers on the line due to unanswered questions about the vaccine’s safety. Word of these accounts spread and led to new challenges.

A Pattern of Deception

When Defense Secretary William Cohen publicly announced the inoculation program in December 1997, he claimed that four requirements would have to be met before it could begin. First, he promised that the stockpiled vaccine would be re-tested to insure its purity and safety. Second, he ordered the creation of a new reporting system to make certain all immunizations were recorded. After the Gulf War, 150,000 GIs who had received anthrax vaccine couldn’t be studied due to poor record keeping. Third, Cohen promised a new operational plan to administer the vaccine and communicate with the troops. Finally, he mandated a review of all medical aspects of the program by an independent expert.

In February 2000, a comprehensive review of the program published by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee concluded that the program should be suspended until questions about side effects and effectiveness of the vaccine are fully answered. This recommendation was partly based on an evaluation of the Pentagon’s compliance with Cohen’s requirements. The report noted that, due to impurities and other problems, only 13 of the 31 existing vaccine lots were rated as safe for use, and neither the record keeping nor information systems created by the military passed muster.

In addition, the report concluded that, rather than engaging in a dialogue with independent critics or dissenting soldiers, Pentagon spokespeople branded them as "paranoiacs" who were "victims of Internet propaganda." To make matters worse, the "independent expert" charged with reviewing medical aspects turned out to be a Yale gynecology professor who admitted that he had no professional expertise concerning anthrax.

Only one manufacturer, Michigan Biologics Lab in Lansing, MI, has been approved to manufacture the vaccine. In 1994 and 1996, inspections by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cited the lab for numerous deficiencies in quality control and observance of production rules. In 1997, the FDA threatened to revoke the plant’s license unless it took immediate corrective action.

The following year, the plant closed for renovations and expansion, with the Pentagon chipping in $15 million. But within months the facility was sold to the Bio Port Corp., the production contract for the vaccine was "re-negotiated," and the military agreed to pay almost twice the price. Bio Port’s board includes former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, the first prominent military leader to endorse Bill Clinton for president. For his support, Crowe was later rewarded with the ambassadorship to Great Britain.

As implied by Cohen’s original requirements, the quality of vaccine supplied by this lab raises serious questions. For many GIs, the possibility of being injected with an impure vaccine deepened a resolve not to accept it. And for good reason: The manufacturer’s "package insert," which is only attached to bottles sold for civilian use, warns that pregnant women shouldn’t be inoculated and that no long term studies of cancer or other health effects have been conducted.

Enter the Internet

The first group of servicemen inoculated were sailors serving aboard aircraft carriers and other ships deployed to the Persian Gulf. Without the Internet, it would have been impossible to instantaneously reach thousands of them with information not available from the Pentagon. Given their long months of isolated sea duty, many sailors rely on the Internet for both information and communication with their families.

One of the first groups who decided to refuse the vaccine served aboard the USS Valley Forge. At first, their commanders sat down with them and attempted to discuss the concerns about safety. When this didn’t change minds, however, they quickly turned to the punitive tools available to compel obedience. Later, they also disrupted Internet access aboard some ships.

Before long, anthrax refusers were being routinely subjected to "Captain’s Mast," a hoary Navy tradition whereby a commander at sea can summarily punish a sailor for any perceived infraction without a hearing on the evidence. Sailors can be confined for 30 days, given extra duty, restricted to the ship, and even fed a three-day diet of bread and water. Although Navy regulations forbid the use of this disciplinary procedure more than once for the same offense, some commanders did exactly that in hopes of "breaking" the resistance.

Understandably, many sailors backed down and accepted the vaccine when confronted with an escalating series of punishments. Subsequently, the Pentagon claimed that only about 350 people actually refused the vaccine. However, if the program had been treated as a public health rather than a criminal issue, thousands would have joined them.

Erik Julius, one of the leaders among the vaccine refusers aboard the Valley Forge, established daily Internet contact with his mother, Lori Greenleaf. An instinctive grassroots organizer from suburban Denver, she was soon logging on with dozens of other GIs and their families around the world. Lori estimates that she communicated with over 4000 people about the anthrax issue in the first nine months of 1998. Of course, the Internet is also a favorite vehicle for all sorts of far-right and just plain nutty groups. Thus, some of the most popular anti-vaccine Websites contain irresponsible or "junk" science, as well as diatribes that claim the vaccine program is part of a vast plot to advance the goals of the New World Order.

Before long, the inoculation program was extended to soldiers and Marines deployed to vaccine "risk areas" such as Japan, Korea, and the Persian Gulf. This provoked a strong current of opposition on many Marine and Army bases, particularly on the West Coast. An anthrax "town meeting," organized by Citizen Soldier in San Diego, drew a standing room only crowd of GIs in February 1999. The local media, as usual, gave it prominent coverage. It was moving to hear these young people express their heartfelt fears about potential health problems or raising children with birth defects due to the vaccine. They also displayed considerable knowledge of the scientific issues.

The Cover-Up Continues

One hotbed of anti-vaccine resistance has been Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. A large number of people inoculated there have reported adverse reactions, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. In the case of reserve pilots, who often fly for commercial airlines, any such illness can jeopardize their flight status and result in dismissal. One wing commander became so concerned about the number of sick inoculees that he ordered a temporary "hiatus" from the program. His superiors promptly rescinded this order.

A patient advocate at Dover, First Lt. Richard Rovet, a nurse with 10 years’ service, became so disturbed by the rate of adverse reactions that he testified before the House Government Reform Committee. In retaliation, the base commander removed him from any contact with patients, and ordered him to make no more public statements about the vaccine. Later, Rovet was transferred to an air base in Mississippi.

At the same House committee hearing, General Accounting Office investigators testified that unpublished Pentagon studies found a systemic reaction rate, ranging from at least five percent to 35 percent or more. These studies also revealed that women were twice as likely as men to experience a reaction. The rates were much higher than those claimed by vaccine advocates within the military.

More recently, a 300-page Pentagon report on biochemical warfare defense planning included a passage revealing that the armed forces hope to amend their Biologic License Application to cover use of the vaccine against aerosolized anthrax. Though buried deep within the report, this statement constitutes an admission that their current license provides FDA approval only for the use of the vaccine against cutaneous (skin) exposure. From the start, critics of the program have argued that the Pentagon chose this particular vaccine only because it already had FDA approval. Unfortunately, it wasn’t designed to protect people from inhaled anthrax spores – the most likely mode of exposure from a military weapon.

In early May, Canada’s chief military judge dismissed criminal charges against Air Force Sgt. Mike Kipling, who had refused to be inoculated with the anthrax vaccine. After hearing expert testimony that raised questions about the vaccine’s safety and purity, the judge ruled that mandating injection could jeopardize Kipling’s common law and charter rights.

Changing Attitudes

Compared with the past, today young GIs are much more concerned about the long-term health and reproductive effects of various toxins and weapons to which they may be exposed. In fact, distrust of the military leadership runs deep whenever environmental toxins are at issue. Until candor replaces cover-up and repression, the Pentagon’s treatment of "atomic veterans," those exposed to Agent Orange, and Gulf War syndrome will continue to undermine the credibility of its scientists and their claims.

These concerns could even spread to other areas, such as a soldier’s duty to obey international laws and to report the commission of illegal acts. However, the prospects for anti-militarist thinking within the ranks should be viewed with cautious realism.

In talking with hundreds of GIs about the vaccine, I was never asked a single question about seeking discharge as a conscientious objector (CO). Nor did anyone question the wisdom of current military adventures, including the US-led assault on Serbia and Kosovo. In fact, some anti-vaccine leaders who serve in Air National Guard units accepted assignments to Italy last year, flying air strikes against primarily civilian targets without apparent complaint. I also never heard anyone voice concern about the environmental hazards posed by depleted uranium-armed rockets and shells, which were widely used in that bombing campaign.

Nevertheless, the scientific and administrative problems associated with giving 2.4 million people six or more anthrax injections are so pervasive that the Pentagon may eventually be forced to shut down the program. The damage to morale and trust is already considerable. Rather than assuming that "Uncle Sam" will look out for them, as earlier generations of GIs did, young troopers are quick to challenge practices that could potentially harm them.

Anti-militarists can take heart in the fact that this new generation has absorbed at least some of the lessons of the past 30 years. Building on this legacy, they’re beginning to stand up – at considerable personal risk – to the reckless indifference of their military leaders.

Tod Ensign is the director of Citizen Soldier, a GI and veterans’ rights and advocacy group based in New York. Thirty years ago, Citizen Soldier organized Vietnam combat vets to speak out about the war crimes policies they were forced to execute. Since then, it has pursued other issues for GI organizing, including the effects of Agent Orange. For more information, call (212) 679-2250.