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Sailors Refuse Anthrax Vaccinations

March 11, 1999

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Twenty-three sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt have been demoted, fined and given extra duty for refusing to take mandatory anthrax vaccinations, according to the Navy.

The Defense Department has encountered resistance as it seeks to inoculate all 2.4 million active duty and reserve military members by 2005.

The New York Times reported today that the Marines Corps has been particularly hard-hit, with more than two dozen Marines in Okinawa refusing the vaccine.

The vaccinations were ordered a year ago by Defense Secretary William Cohen for all military units sent to the Persian Gulf.

Navy Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman, played down the extent of the problem today, saying ``less than one-tenth of 1 percent″ of troops have refused so far to receive the series of shots among some 218,000 personnel already vaccinated against anthrax.

He noted that Cohen, who has been vaccinated against anthrax as an example to the troops, didn’t authorize the inoculations until he was assured they were safe. U.S. Army special forces have been receiving anthrax vaccinations since the 1970s, including annual boosters, Doubleday said.

``What we’re talking about here are measures, medical measures which are designed to protect individuals in the U.S. military who may at some future time be put into a theater where anthrax is a threat,″ Doubleday said at a regular Pentagon briefing. ``And this series of vaccinations will enable service personnel to operate in that kind of an environment.″

Doubleday confirmed that U.S. military personnel who refuse the anthrax shots face dismissal, usually through an administrative process, for refusing to follow an order. Whether they’re honorably or dishonorably discharged depends on their service record, he said.

Initially, 38 Roosevelt sailors balked at the vaccinations, which began two weeks ago as the carrier prepared for a six-month deployment starting March 26. Some sailors later changed their minds, Navy officials said.

In the past year, 50 to 100 service members are known to have resisted inoculation. In February, 11 California Air Force Reserve pilots chose to quit rather than take the anthrax vaccine.

One of them, Airman 1st Class Jeffrey Bettendorf, 25, chose an ``other than honorable″ discharge to avoid a special court-martial. He said his research showed the vaccine is untested and unreliable.

The Navy confirmed the Roosevelt situation Wednesday following an inquiry by The Virginian-Pilot, which received an anonymous e-mail message from a sailor who said sailors were concerned about potential side effects.

``I was given nothing to explain what I was taking, so I did my own research and found disturbing reports,″ the sailor said. ``We are scared.″

Cmdr. Garry Rudolph, a Navy doctor who directs the occupational health and preventive medicine program at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, said the anthrax vaccine is safe.

Navy officials confirmed last year that a sailor on the destroyer USS John S. McCain developed a temporary paralysis after being vaccinated. Officials said the sailor fully recovered.

The Navy contends it has provided sailors with information about the vaccine, answered their questions and offered counseling to those who initially refused.

The holdouts on the Roosevelt were charged with disobeying an order and punished with a reduction in pay, fines, restriction to the ship and extra duty.

The Navy refused to identify any of those punished but said they may be given administrative discharges once the ship returns.

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