Sunday, March 12, 2000

Major gets lawmakers' backing in vaccine flap

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        At least two prominent Tristate legislators have taken up the cause of military personnel refusing the controversial anthrax vaccine.

        U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, D-Richwood, said he supportsthe efforts of Air Force Maj. Sonnie Bates, a highly decorated pilot and father of three, who believes the vaccine meant to protect against biological warfare may actually be the cause of serious medical problems among inoculated members of the military.

        Maj. Bates, the highest-ranking military officer to face punishment for refusing the vaccine, was fined $3,200 earlier this month and given a career-damaging official reprimand for disobeying the order.

        Mr. Lucas met with Maj. Bates' relatives in Northern Kentucky last month. Afterward, Mr. Lucas, a former Air Force pilot, became a supporter of House Bill 2548, which would suspend the anthrax program. The legislation has been referred to a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

        “Reports of servicemen and women who may have suffered permanent damage from the vaccine are of great concern,” Mr. Lucas said in a statement Wednesday. “It is only wise that we suspend the program.”

        Mr. Lucas also called for further study of the vaccine.

        Maj. Bates has questioned the safety of the vaccine and has said he cannot afford to risk his health by taking it. The 1986 Northern Kentucky University graduate from Independence has three school-age children, including an autistic son. His wife, Roxane, is from Walton.

        Maj. Bates' family members “are great advocates for him and for the rights and concerns of those who serve in the military,” Mr. Lucas said. “Their personal testimony to me was very persuasive.”

        Maj. Bates said he is thankful for Mr. Lucas' support.

        “Giving your life for your country in time of war is one thing,” he said, “however, it is another issue to give up your health during peacetime by allowing an unsafe drug to enter into yourbloodstream.”

        U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, also has taken Maj. Bates' side, urging Defense Secretary William Cohen to consider Maj. Bates' request for a resignation.

        Mr. Burton also has stated support for David Ponder, a U.S. Navy petty officer from Taylor Mill facing court-martial. Mr. Ponder is stationed in Gulfport, Miss., where he lives with his wife and 5-month-old son.

        Mr. Ponder, 21, has said that concerns about possible sterility prompted him to refuse the vaccine. Mr. Ponder left for Japan this weekend to be prosecuted.

        Mr. Burton accused military officials of trying to reduce public scrutiny of the case. He said in a March 6 letter to the Pentagon: “To whisk him out of the country to conduct a court-martial trial under the cloak of darkness ... is outrageous,”

        Two years ago, Mr. Cohen ordered all active-duty and reserve troops to get anthrax shots. About 340,000 service members have been immunized. Some 200-300 have refused to take it because of concerns about its safety and efficacy, Pentagon officials say.

        The vaccine is the subject of increasing scrutiny by Congress. Soldiers, including pilots in the National Guard and reserves, have expressed concerns about taking the six-shot regimen and have detailed health problems such as fever, muscle pain and dizziness. Maj. Bates and others said they have seen members of their units develop serious illnesses such as thyroid damage, memory loss, liver damage, autoimmune disorders, infected cysts and lesions.

        A national security subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee has said the military's program to inoculate all 2.4 million troops against anthrax is based on “dangerously narrow scientific” evidence. It urges suspension of the program.


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