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By Richard Currey
As this issue of The VVA Veteran went to press, the military reinstated its anthrax vaccination program.

The Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program ( is emerging from a three-year hiatus after Federal Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered the Department of Defense to suspend anthrax vaccinations in May 2004. Judge Sullivan ruled the anthrax vaccine was an experimental drug that had not been subjected to appropriate testing or cleared for human use by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration. Notably, Judge Sullivan found that hundreds of service members received the inoculations without informed consent, a direct violation of the regulatory statutes conferring protection to human subjects involved in medical research—and a clear breach of medical ethics.

In imposing the injunction, Judge Sullivan said that “the women and men of our armed forces put their lives on the line every day to preserve and safeguard the freedoms that all Americans cherish and enjoy. Absent an informed consent…the United States cannot demand that members of the armed forces also serve as guinea pigs for experimental drugs.”

Judge Sullivan’s use of the phrase “guinea pigs” is no exaggeration, according to retired Air National Guardsman Steve Fisher. “Judge Sullivan was right on the money. The military has been experimenting with the anthrax vaccine, and hundreds of us have gotten sick. Or died.”

Fisher received four anthrax inoculations over a six-month period in 1999 and 2000, and went on to suffer a progressive series of worsening medical symptoms that ultimately forced his discharge from the Air National Guard on medical grounds, retirement from a career as a civilian aircraft maintenance technician with the Guard, the loss of a flourishing sideline business as an electrician, the collapse of his marriage, a protracted battle with the VA for disability benefits, and thousands of out-of-pocket dollars spent for medical care that continues to this day.

Fisher is president of Protecting Our Guardians (POG), a veterans’ advocacy group organized to defend service members from the perils of the anthrax vaccine. “At the very least,” Fisher said, “we’d like to make the vaccine optional.” And, he added “I mean truly optional, where an individual is not punished or ostracized if he or she elects to forego the vaccine. The best scenario, though, is that the anthrax program be shut down until such time that the vaccine is proven safe, effective, and truly necessary.”

Complexities, Confusion
Navigating the universe of military vaccines is fraught with complexities and confusions. The federal government voices its vaccine policies variously–and sometimes in contradiction—through DoD, FDA, VA, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Congress, and all branches of the military. Since the matters at hand are medical, scientific, and legal, lay people are often at a disadvantage in ferreting out information and understanding it once they have.

“This is a key area where POG can help,” Fisher said. “The research alone can tie you up in knots.” Waving a hand across a table in his office to indicate the hundreds of pages of reports, letters, and files that document his own case, Fisher underscored the persistence any vaccine-injured service member or veteran will need to “work their case.”

On the anthrax front alone, debate swirls around four intersecting points: ethics, safety, efficacy, and need. The Sullivan decision found that the anthrax vaccine was unlicensed for human use, yet was administered to hundreds of thousands of service members without their informed consent. This matter also was tested in the 2001 case of an Air Force physician, Capt. John Buck, who refused to take or administer the vaccine on similar grounds. In a military hearing Buck was prohibited from mounting a defense on the medical, scientific, and ethical merits of his position. He was barred from introducing documentary proof, nor was he allowed friendly witnesses or expert testimony.

After advising the hearing officer that he had come to an “ethical crossroads” as an individual and a medical doctor who had taken the Hippocratic Oath, Buck was summarily convicted of disobeying a direct order, confined to base for sixty days, had an official reprimand placed in his service record, and fined $1,500 a month for fourteen months.

Buck and another Air Force officer, a pilot who had also “conscientiously objected” to the anthrax vaccine, later filed a civil suit against DoD. Meanwhile, however, the government used legal technicalities that established the anthrax vaccine was not experimental (through a narrow doorway of interpretation). With the anthrax program back in action, DoD has revised and updated their Web sites, apparently believing all responsibilities to inform and educate have been met.

But do these actions truly satisfy the government’s ethical obligations to those serving in uniform and their families? Particularly if, as many maintain, the anthrax vaccine is still a very risky proposition?

The anthrax vaccine, known as “anthrax vaccine adsorbed”or “AVA,” is the same formulation used in earlier programs that came under fire for safety concerns and led to a significant number of military resignations. Some, like retired Air Force Lt. Col. Redmond Handy, vice president of POG, chose retirement rather than be placed in the position of receiving a questionable vaccine or ordering subordinates to receive it.
For others, like Steve Fisher, the vaccine’s disastrous side effects curtailed successful military careers. The reality of these side effects, which can include chronic immune deficiencies, brain and nervous system disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, and conditions mimicking multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, are documented in scientific papers spanning more than a decade, echoed by expert panels, and demonstrated in the struggles of vaccine-disabled veterans.

As it happens, both DoD and FDA agree that anthrax and other vaccines carry potentially severe risks. But both agencies also have long contended that the event rate of serious side effects is low and the vaccines used by the military are therefore safe for large-scale use.

Indeed, the reported side-effect rate of 1-2 percent suggests that AVA is as safe as any other vaccine. But the accuracy of those figures has long been questioned, with some vaccine critics claiming the actual side-effect rate might run to 10 percent or higher. Steve Fisher said that it is widely understood that under-reporting (or non-reporting) of adverse events has skewed the statistics downward to create a false sense of safety.

Fisher’s personal experience with VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) forms points to a dysfunctional process. He once filed his own form, only to be told that the VAERS process was a command function and not the responsibility of the individual. Yet the same individual who offered that guidance later admitted to not filing VAERS forms ever, directly flouting DoD directives to do so.

The VAERS forms would appear to represent a classic military conundrum: The official directive is to file the forms, while at the local command level, filers might be reprimanded or punished. “I’ve been told by people in a position to know that VAERS reporting [throughout the military] is discouraged or just not done,” Fisher said. “So how can we say with any certainty what the AVA side-effect rate really is?”

An accurate sense of what is meant by “side effect” is further complicated by the fact that a reportable adverse reaction can range from a slight redness at the injection site to a life-threatening disability. Efforts to screen out individuals who might be predisposed to more severe vaccine effects is haphazard at best.

And what about the vaccine’s actual effectiveness—its ability to create sustained immunity to anthrax infection? The AVA protocol demands an initial series of six shots over eighteen months followed by an annual booster shot to maintain immunity. “That’s just absurd,” said Redmond Handy. “It means a service member could receive some twenty-four anthrax shots over a twenty-year career. What other vaccine needs a protocol that extreme?” Handy maintained that such a dosing schedule implied a vaccine of minimal effectiveness, another reason he believes AVA needs more rigorous evaluation.

A final controversy centers on the likelihood of an anthrax attack against our troops in the field. “The only two countries on earth that have the capacity to produce and deploy weaponized anthrax are the United Sates and the former Soviet Union,” Handy said. “And even if that reality changes anytime soon, it is well known that anthrax is difficult to deploy and of questionable effectiveness in the field or in combat. It’s just not much of a weapon among the choices that are out there.” So why, Handy wondered, is this vaccine so urgently needed by our troops? If the actual threat of an anthrax attack is remote, why risk the health of able-bodied service members?

More Than Anthrax
POG has recently expanded the scope of its mission to include other vaccines in addition to anthrax, reflecting the fact that AVA is not the only specter in the military’s vaccine closet. POG’s membership now includes Michael Berger, a former National Guardsman with disabilities officially linked to smallpox vaccine.

Berger’s story was first covered in these pages (The Needle and the Damage Done: Vaccinating America’s Soldiers, January/February 2005) after he suffered vaccine-related heart disease and, more recently, nervous system disorders also attributed to vaccines.

A medic with more than twenty years of service at the time he was assigned to the 452nd Combat Support Hospital at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin, in early 2003, Berger received a routine battery of inoculations, including anthrax and smallpox vaccines. In the few days that followed he thought he was experiencing a case of flu until he had a major heart attack while on field exercises.

Another soldier vaccinated at the same time, Rachel Lacy, died a few weeks later. Under public and political pressure, DoD convened two independent scientific review panels to look into her death. Both panels concurred that Lacy’s death was almost certainly related to vaccines, although since she received several inoculations in a single day it was impossible to tease out which one was the culprit.

Mike Berger was only beginning to put the picture together as he worked his way through the Army’s medical system after his heart attack. Just as he thought he was about to be medically discharged, he was brought to Walter Reed Army Medical Center by the Army’s National Vaccine Health Center, which advised Berger that he would be at the hospital for about two weeks. By the time Berger brought his case to VVA, he had been at Walter Reed for nearly a year and was in deteriorating health, trapped in the military’s bureaucratic maze, and deeply frustrated. “I felt like a hamster on a wheel—no matter how long or far I thought I’d run, I was always in the same place,” he said. “Paperwork was lost, or it was wrong, or it was sent to the wrong offices. And all the while my health was getting worse.”

Immunization Nightmare
As of 1999, Steve Fisher knew he was experiencing reactions to the anthrax vaccine. He had seen an Air Force doctor, Capt. John Dice, who agreed and annotated Fisher’s military shot record with a hand-written note indicating Fisher was an anthrax-reactor and further immunizations should be deferred. Despite this, Fisher received a fourth shot the same day he saw Dr. Dice because of a miscommunication with a medical technician. Dr. Dice was apologetic, the medic chastened, but further damage was almost certainly done, since Fisher subsequently saw a worsening of his symptoms along with the emergence of new symptoms.

Fisher returned to his home installation, McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas, where he worked with the 184th Bomber Wing. “The command decided it was going to take action against me for trying to get my VAERS forms filed,” Fisher said. “The CO called me in and said, ‘I don’t want you talking anymore about the anthrax shots.’” A command directive was subsequently issued stating that “no one in the unit could speak about the anthrax vaccine with anyone at any time,” according to Fisher. The directive required that unit members sign to indicate understanding and agreement; Steve Fisher hand-wrote on his form that he reserved the right to speak about his anthrax issues with his personal physicians.

Meanwhile, Fisher said, the 184th was losing pilots who were concerned about anthrax vaccine. Rather than challenge the issue and struggle with tainted records or bad discharges, they were quietly resigning their commissions.

During this period, Fisher was struggling with a panoply of vaccine side effects, from ringing in his ears (a known AVA side effect) to a case of vertigo (dizziness) that was incapacitating. “Sometimes I’d be walking and just fall down,” Fisher said. “I fell in the shower. I’d even keel over when I was just sitting down.” Fisher also developed muscle and joint pain. He couldn’t kneel, couldn’t hold tools, couldn’t stand on a ladder. Then there was the overwhelming fatigue. “My work suffered and my supervisor started leaning on me about job performance,” he said.

Despite a convoluted administrative process with many starts and stops, Fisher was finally honorably discharged from the Guard and retired from his job as a civilian technician with the Guard in August 2001. Along the way, he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, non-specific musculoskeletal illness, asthma, sleep apnea, heart valve damage, and an inflamed esophagus.

“I never had any of these problems or anything remotely like them before I received the anthrax shots,” Fisher said.

Fisher sought assistance from veterans’ service organizations in settling a disability benefit dispute with the VA. Although he received some help, including an increase in his rating, he found the VSOs he approached to be as challenged as he was in knowing how to manage vaccine-related injuries. When Fisher heard about POG (founded by Marguerite Armistead, whose husband was an Air National Guard pilot who endured anthrax vaccine effects) he knew the need existed for an advocacy organization focused exclusively on vaccine health —and that he needed to be a member.

“POG, as much as anything, is about public scrutiny,” Fisher said. “We want to see accountability, and we want to see care for our vaccine-injured vets. The way DoD is currently playing it, it’s a closed case. FDA has cleared AVA and the program is up and running. But too many questions are unanswered. Too many vets are sick and fighting for care. This is far from over.”

Help from VVA
By late July 2004, the military vaccine program had scored an ominous series of questionable deaths and chronic illnesses, along with the outrage of those who found themselves targeted in disciplinary proceedings, even courts-martial, for refusing smallpox or anthrax vaccines. As military personnel and their families began to alert members of Congress, Assistant Secretary of Defense William Winkenwerder, Jr., reported that the Army had identified 37 cases of heart inflammation in the wake of smallpox vaccination—but the vaccine was still considered safe.

Winkenwerder later was fired from his post after the nation learned of the systematic poor care for soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But before those disturbing revelations, smallpox-reactor Mike Berger ended up barred from his own disability evaluation hearing at Walter Reed. Berger was told by his lawyer that the disability board “was sticking at ten percent, and if I argued about it they would rescind the offer entirely.”

Berger’s first few months at home were tough. “It was as much my medical issues as the uncertainty about what would happen to me and my family.” Berger kept in touch with friends and contacts at VVA and took his health needs to the local VA. Both helped. “I got moral support and ongoing encouragement from VVA, big doses of that ‘don’t give up’ attitude. And my doctors at the VA here have been absolutely outstanding.”

His disability rating has been raised, and Berger is encouraged by news that the VA likely will revisit his rating another time in light of his continuing symptoms.

“What has become very clear to me in these past few years,” Berger said, “is that when a veteran needs help the most—when you’re at your weakest —is exactly when you have to be your own strongest advocate. So many of the steps I’ve taken with the Army and the VA have been uphill battles, despite the fact that both the Army and the VA are supposed to be looking out for me.”

Berger is particularly grateful for assistance he received from VVA. “A source of friendship,” Berger said, “and an advocate when I was feeling powerless, comfort when I was hurting physically and emotionally, always there when I needed someone to say, ‘We’ve been there, too, so don’t give up. It does get better.’” And while Berger expressed gratitude for “giving voice to my issue,” he said that many individuals at VVA made it clear there were “hearts out there who cared about me as well as my issue.”

Getting Congress To Act
Steve Fisher, during a conversation with VVA at his office in northern Virginia, recalled a lesson from his years of service. “If the chain of command fails you, take your problem to your Member of Congress. POG is doing exactly that. We’re focused on bringing attention to the anthrax vaccine before Congress, preparing positions for Congress to consider, and lobbying on behalf of desired legislation.”

POG has drafted language for a bill that would suspend further appropriations for the anthrax program “until such time as a vaccine is developed that is demonstrably effective and safe” for recipients and the military community at large.

“The burden of proof in this matter has yet to be satisfied by the U.S. government,” Redmond Handy said. “We, as service members, veterans, and citizens are owed at least that much.” Handy compared the anthrax program to friendly fire. “This is an abusive situation,” he said. “There is a striking lack of evidence of effect in these shots. There is a lack of evidence of safety. And there is a lack of military legitimacy.”

The participation of Mike Berger in POG now expands those concerns to the smallpox vaccine as well. Berger’s condition is somewhat improved, although he still needs regular medical care for his smallpox-related disabilities. He’s back to work in Michigan but also contributing time to POG. “I’m not completely recovered,” he said, “and may never be. But now’s the time to try and help others caught up in the same problems I’ve faced.”

Steve Fisher welcomes the assistance. “I’ve met, read about, or heard about so many others who got sick after getting shots,” he said. “If we can bring all those voices together, I think DoD will finally have to take notice.”

Fisher said that helping lawmakers gain awareness and make an informed decision is paramount. For now, he believes the best route to that end is to suspend the anthrax program until the vaccine is proven safe. “If there’s any one-line slogan I can think of that sums up POG’s objectives at this point,” he said, “it’s ‘Stop The Shots.’

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