Tom Rempfer is ready at a moment's notice to pack a bag and head out to any part of the world to fly combat missions in his A-10 fighter aircraft. The Connecticut Air National Guard captain says he is prepared to put his life on the line anyplace, anytime to protect United States interests.
But earlier this month, Captain Rempfer's commanders gave him a direct order he says he cannot obey.
They ordered him to roll up his sleeve and accept a vaccination against anthrax, a biological weapon believed to be in Saddam Hussein's arsenal.
"We were given the choice, take the vaccine or be grounded from your flying duties as A-10 attack pilots," Rempfer says.
"This is the only order I've ever had to refuse," says Air National Guard Maj. Dom Possemato, who shares Rempfer's dilemma. "I'm willing to accept that an Iraqi or Iranian might shoot me and put me in a grave, but I'm not willing to let my country do it with an unproved vaccination."
Of 35 pilots in Major Possemato and Rempfer's squadron, nine have refused the shots.
The vaccination issue has been percolating since December 1997 when Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered all of the nation's 2.4 million soldiers and sailors (active duty, reserves, and national guard) to receive the anthrax vaccination.
Pentagon officials insist the shots, which began in August and will continue for the next five years, are safe and effective. But many of those facing anthrax vaccinations aren't so sure.
Protecting US forces
The issue is critical to Defense leaders because vaccination is a cornerstone of US policy to protect the nation's forces from biological warfare whether waged by Saddam Hussein or freelance terrorists. Planners are seeking to develop a dozen or more vaccines to safeguard American troops from a wide variety of biological and chemical weapons threats.
In short, it holds the promise in the minds of some military strategists of rendering American forces immune from a particularly deadly form of terror.
But to many on the sharp end of the needle, the real terror springs from a US policy forcing fearful soldiers to be injected with a vaccine they believe is neither safe nor effective, and may result in long-term health problems.
"In some ways they are playing Russian roulette, except the bullet goes really, really slow. The bullet may not hit you for 20 years. We just don't know," says Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer active in the vaccination issue.
"When the government starts to abuse our children - that which is sacred to us - that is when the line in the sand gets drawn," says Tim Watson, a Vietnam veteran whose son is a marine worried about the vaccination. "This is morally wrong. This is communism when they do things like this."
Not everyone is concerned about the anthrax vaccinations, however. More than 166,000 service members have already received the first of the set of six shots. Only 76 have refused, says Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner.
"It is just a handful of people," Mr. Turner says of the refusers. "I think that is absolutely remarkable. It's been a highly successful program by anyone's measure."
Those opposed to the vaccination policy say the number is low because military leaders are threatening to court martial anyone who declines the shots.
So far no one has faced an actual court martial, though that may change soon. Tomorrow, a US Air Force airman at Travis Air Force Base in California may become the first American to be tried in a military court for refusing the shots.
All other refusers have lost pay, been fined, restricted to base or ship, and lost rank before being tossed out of the military under a general discharge.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is looking into the vaccination policy. And concerned parents and spouses of military personnel have called a town meeting for Feb. 22 in Ilion, N.Y., to discuss the issue.
The fears of many are fueled by mistrust of military leaders who seem to them unresponsive to their concerns. They point to soldiers being contaminated during early nuclear weapons testing in the 1940s and 1950s, and combat forces exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam in the 1960s. They also cite the lingering mystery surrounding an array of illnesses suffered by many Gulf War veterans in the 1990s.
Critics say the Pentagon should suspend the anthrax vaccination program pending comprehensive and independent testing of the long-term effects.
Some suggest the US should adopt a voluntary vaccination program like Britain's. Roughly 30 percent of British military personnel opted for the anthrax vaccination, while 70 percent declined, says a spokesman for Britain's Defense Ministry.
"I don't have good advice for service members," says Meryl Nass, an emergency-room doctor at a Maine hospital, who has spent 10 years researching anthrax and the vaccine issue. "I wouldn't take the vaccine myself. But I'm not planning a career in the military either."
Dr. Nass and other critics use the Internet to provide an information clearinghouse for anyone skeptical of the anthrax program.
The Defense Department has tried to counter with a Web site of its own, but the site doesn't directly address many pointed questions raised by critics.
"How can I trust a government that admitted to conducting secret experiments on military personnel in the past?" asks a young female sailor in an e-mail message. "Had I known when I was a civilian that I could be injected with experimental chemicals and medicines without my consent, I would not have joined."
Turner says the vaccine program is not experimental. "We have a vaccine that is safe, effective, and FDA approved," he says. "It has been out there since 1970 with an excellent safety record. How much testing is enough?"