News

European Stars And Stripes
Sept. 2, 1999
Pg. 2

Anthrax Lawyer Turns To Internet For Support

By Chuck Vinch, Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — An attorney representing numerous servicemembers whose careers have been threatened by their refusal to take mandatory anthrax vaccinations is turning to the Internet to garner support for congressional changes in the Defense Department program.

Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer, has launched an Internet e-mail petition designed to demonstrate support of two pending bills in the House that would change the Anthrax Vaccination Immunization Program (AVIP).

The petition, which already has attracted nearly 1,000 signatures in less than two weeks, will be automatically sent to President Clinton, Defense Secretary William Cohen and the Department of the Army on Sept. 17, Zaid said.

The Pentagon has been waging a public relations battle to convince troops that the vaccine — designed to protect troops from one of the likeliest biological agents they might encounter on the battlefield — is safe. The Defense Department is inoculating all active duty and reserve personnel against anthrax at an estimated cost of $130 million, with forward-deployed troops in Korea and southwest Asia going first.

The immunizations, which began in March 1998, call for a series of six injections of the vaccine over a period of 18 months, followed by annual booster shots. The Defense Department has an entire Internet site devoted to information on the program, and officials have pointed out that several dozen employees of an Army research facility in Maryland that handles anthrax have received routine vaccinations over the past 30 years, with no reports of ill effects.

But with Gulf War Syndrome still in the forefront of many troops’ minds, military officials have a long way to go to allay fears in the ranks that the vaccine might cause long-term adverse health effects.

Hundreds of troops have flatly refused to take the vaccine. Generally, they are being given administrative punishment and separated from the service. In dozens of heated entries in the open forum area of Zaid’s petition site, troops exhibit a deep distrust of the Defense Department leadership on the issue.

"I swore to uphold and defend the Constitution and my country — I didn’t volunteer to put a gun to my head," reads one typical entry from an active-duty officer who said he has been slapped with nonjudicial punishment and is being discharged over his refusal to take the vaccine.

"This petition is designed to maximize the use of the Internet in this increasingly heated debate over the future of the Pentagon’s anthrax program," Zaid said.

Zaid is executive director of the James Madison Project, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that seeks to educate the public on issues related to national security issues, the U.S. government’s intelligence operations and secrecy policies, and government wrongdoing.

"From 300 to 500 dedicated servicemembers, and the number is growing, have been needlessly punished solely for refusing this vaccine, and the AVIP is threatening the readiness of our military by forcing senior Air National Guard pilots and flight crews to quit or resign so they can avoid the vaccination," he said.

The two bills pending in the House are sponsored by Reps. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Ben Gilman, R-N.Y. They have asked Rep. Steve Buyer, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel panel, to hold a hearing on their legislation this fall.

Jones’s bill would make the Pentagon program voluntary, rather than mandatory, while Gilman’s bill would halt vaccinations until ongoing studies are completed.

"I encourage everyone to sign the petition and pass it on to friends and family," Zaid said. "By standing together, we can generate enough congressional support to effect a change in the Pentagon’s mandatory policy."