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Statement of Sergeant Michael B. Shepard

Before the Subcommittee on National Security,

Veterans Affairs, and International Relations

Of the Committee on Government Reform

Of the House of Representatives

April 29, 1999

 

My family and I are residents of Potter County that is in the 5th Congressional District in rural northcentral Pennsylvania. Congressman John Peterson represents us. I am currently finishing a four year enlistment as a military intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army. I am proud of my service and deeply respect the military and the great freedom it defends everyday. At this time, I serve as the training non-commissioned officer(NCO) and the assistant Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Warfare Non-commissioned officer in my unit. I am here to speak for, what I believe, is the silent majority in the armed forces on the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program(AVIP).

At this point, I want to make it clear for the record that my opinions on this issue are not tied in any way to the possibility of me being deployed. I am not on deployment orders, have not been in the past year, and do not intend to be deployed in the near future. However, I am prepared to deploy at a moment’s notice. Furthermore, my service record is impeccable. I have never been accused of misconduct, given non-judicial punishment or even given a negative counseling statement. My record demonstrates achievement far and beyond my peers in such a short period. I was promoted with two waivers and affirmed my superiors’ confidence by graduating from the Army’s leadership school as the honor graduate. This year I was chosen to assist my commander in managing our unit training which is a slot usually filled by a soldier at least one grade higher than mine. These statements are to totally disarm the suggestions that have been made or will be made in the future regarding my motivation or my fellow soldiers’ motivation who oppose the AVIP. We work everyday to defend our freedom and are willing to enter harm’s way at any time for our country. My testimony today expresses my convictions and is not intended to reflect or represent the Army’s policies or views.

My comments regarding safety and efficacy today are meant to communicate the situation that faces the average enlisted soldier. My credibility does not lie in what I know about science but in what I know about soldiers. We have heard opposing views regarding the safety of this vaccine on several fronts:

1. No long-term studies available on the effects of this substance over a long period of time other than the anecdotal, non-scientific, non-peer reviewed examples that there are no ill health effects in military lab workers

2. FDA approval is based on pre-1970 study that apparently would not meet a FDA standard today.

3. Serious questions regarding the production facility.

4. Current reactions of service members.

5. Circumstantial evidence linking vaccinations, possibly anthrax, to Gulf War Illnesses.

In addition, the efficacy of this vaccine has been debated.

1. The vaccine was developed for cutaneous anthrax exposure and studies on inhalation anthrax are limited at best.

2. Senate reports indicate efficacy of vaccine is unknown based on the limited testing.

The exacerbating element of the AVIP is the shrinking credibility of the DOD. Since your last hearing, the Army has changed its AVIP brochure to retract its claim that veterinarians routinely use this vaccine. The claim that most friendly vets that take care of our domestic pets take this vaccine comforted many service personnel until is was debunked. In addition, the publication of the investigation in Vanity Fair on the anthrax vaccine’s possible tie to Gulf War Illnesses has further damaged the DOD’s credibility even if you dismiss half of the article as sensationalism. Finally, the military’s heavy-handed tactics for producing a "successful" program have been brought to light by the reversal of the decision regarding PFC Lundbom’s discharge that was announced before this very committee and then changed when he returned to his unit.

Any service person that has completed basic training recognizes that the DOD’s claims to this committee and the Congressional staff, which it is vociferously lobbying, that this vaccine is "as important as carrying a rifle or gas mask" or is a vital piece of "body armor" are quizzical, at best. In fact, aren’t these claims troubling when you consider that these senior leaders are expecting us to believe that the crude technology of the 1950’s and 1960’s is the body armor of the next millennium? One soldier who was in the Gulf region last year and began his anthrax vaccinations while serving in the Gulf had this story. Upon returning from the deployment he turned in his NBC protective equipment. The NBC NCO chuckled and told him it was a good thing they did not get hit because this soldier’s equipment was outdated by military standards and would have been little use to him. Is this the best we can do as the most modernized military in the world? Why aren’t we researching and developing the best protective gear that combines a more effective protective mask with protective clothing that allows for more flexibility to accomplish the mission? If we are this concerned with an imminent attack, we need to make it the highest priority to obtain the best protective equipment and tightly control the national stock so that we are always ready to go to war.

In light of these real concerns, I believe the information available to soldiers and the lack of candor exhibited by DOD officials, when pointedly questioned on the information, leaves the enlisted soldier two options. The soldier can blindly trust the DOD and accept the shots at his own risk or refuse the shots and accept the current contextualization of this act as disobeying an order.

If this were all an academic discussion then it would certainly be intriguing at this point. However, even as we speak, men and women in uniform are facing very serious and difficult choices that have long-term consequences just like this vaccine. You see this issue is about class, too. Most members of an all volunteer force are from the middle and lower classes of society. The service is generally comprised of citizens from urban and rural America. Rural districts just like my own. These people are barely paying their bills with their paychecks.

Place yourself in the boots of a 23 year-old PFC who is a single mother struggling to get by on her salary and additional assistance. She has followed the AVIP issue until it is her turn. She is faced with these very serious, legitimate, and real questions regarding the effects on her health on the one hand and the loss of her livelihood, educational benefits, and loss of an honorable characterization of her loyal service to the U.S. Army on the other. What does the specialist who is getting married this summer do? He needs leave in June and needs the G.I. Bill to provide for his wife and future family. He absolutely does not want to risk his health in this program especially since he will leave the military in 10 months anyway. What are his choices? What about the soldier who has three kids and has 10 years in the service and is like most enlisted soldiers: barely making ends meet and cannot even imagine a fine let alone loss of rank.? These personnel may initially refuse but after continual threats and consideration of their future will yield to the harassment and submit their bodies because of a dollar bill. In my personal experience I am aware of several initial AVIP refusers who were threatened with the military punishments and then complied with the program. Every soldier I speak to has reacted substantially to the shots with several suffering diarrhea, abdominal cramps, malaise, flu-like symptoms including fever, headache, and in some cases vomiting. In addition, local swelling has lasted longer than any shot they have ever taken. Some soldiers’ arms have stayed swollen for over two weeks. I asked these soldiers about using the VAERS form. They did not know it existed and were not issued one when vaccinated. Nor were the soldiers briefed on how to report reactions or the importance of reporting these reactions for the success of this program.

At my level, my observations on the impact of this program as a first-line supervisor include the following:

1. Soldiers overwhelmingly distrust the DOD on this issue because of the available information.

2. Soldiers put their career, livelihood, and educational benefits before their legitimate concerns for their health.

3. Soldier morale and trust in our leadership is suffering due to the obvious steamrollering over legitimate concerns and questions. It will continue to do so if this program is allowed to continue unabated and future vaccination programs follow this model. This will affect retention in both direct and indirect ways.

4. Soldiers are confused with the sudden paranoia about NBC attacks in the public and private sector. The defense establishment has known about weaponized anthrax and other elements since at least 1990 if not long before. The threat has always been real but taking action for action’s sake does not help the situation. It seems more like a Band-Aid than strategy. Those of us at the lowest echelons in the intelligence community have taken time to pause because we are confused. The nation of Israel, arguably the greatest enemy of our current adversaries in the Gulf region, is not scrambling like the U.S. to inoculate its civilians and soldiers. They have protective equipment ready for use if necessary.

5. 200,000 plus compliant service persons are not endorsements of the AVIP. The silent majority does not want to take these shots based on the legitimate concerns that were present before this committee investigation began and still have not been answered by this probe.

Soldiers are not disputing that they are in the armed forces and must respect the orders of superiors. Trust and respect work both ways. In times of peace, the military must train as they fight in order to be confident that on the day of battle each soldier will understand their duty and will execute it without question upon order. However, let us make sure that we keep the AVIP in context. You were told in your first hearing that soldiers "cannot choose which orders to follow." True. But how do you expect soldiers to trust the orders of their superiors on the day of battle when, during peace, they poorly plan and execute programs like this one? And to add injury to insult, they attempt to convince the American people and us that this 1950’s technology is my "body armor" and as important as my gas mask for attacks of biological-chemical cocktails? Soldiers are not fooled and I hope you will not be either.

This issue will affect me personally in the near future. My unit will be lined up on June 7th, 21st, and July 6th and forced to take the first three vaccinations. I do not want to risk my personal health for this program that is extremely suspect, at best, in light of the current information available. There are legitimate concerns, as outlined in Mr. Shays’ statement that opened the initial proceedings on this issue, about the long-term safety of the vaccine, the manufacturing processes, and the DOD’s past record on medical matters. In addition to these concerns, I am concerned about the recent findings in the GAO report to Congressman Metcalf and the Vanity Fair investigation. I have contacted both of my U.S. Senators and my Congressman John Peterson regarding this issue.

This vaccine is administered in six shots over 18 months. I am not aware of any written policy regarding personnel with less than 18 months in service. When I am forced to choose whether to take the shots in June I will have only 10 months left in the Army. Even if I suspend critical analysis of the situation and blindly trust the DOD and take the shots, I will have no recourse if it does cause my family or I future health problems. This is because of the legal precedent of the early 1950’s commonly referred to as the Feres doctrine. The doctrine has held that the government is not liable for the effects of military service. Lawsuits stemming from birth defects in children of Gulf War veterans have been dismissed based on the Feres doctrine in the past two years. The most I could hope for if I take the shots and suffer future health problems is treatment from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs if my income is low enough. Therefore, in light of the current information I feel compelled to not comply with the AVIP.

The consequences of not complying, if I do not comply, will likely be demotion, fines, and threats of a prejudicial discharge. I do not want to face these consequences. However, I will do it if I am forced to do so. I will do it not only for me but also for my fellow service members and the citizen soldiers in my Congressional District that are without a voice. The majority of service personnel in my unit and, if surveyed, the entire military, do not want to take this vaccine. The majority of a volunteer force is from the lower portions of our society in terms of affluence. This means that the majority of service personnel cannot take the financial hardship of fines. In addition, a discharge that is not honorable will take away that soldier’s GI Bill which is why many young Americans of modest means join the military service: the promise of access to education to build a brighter tomorrow for themselves and their families. In my opinion, with so many questions outstanding at this time, it is wrong, even immoral, to force service personnel into choosing between these alternatives. It is time for a Members of Congress, especially Members representing Districts like mine, to step forward, take a principled stand, and ask that this program be halted, made voluntary, or at minimum, suspended until the deliberative bodies of the U.S. House and Senate complete their reviews of the AVIP and report their findings.

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