Ailing vets point to forced vaccinations

Web posted Monday, September 16, 2002

By Mike Wynn and Johnny Edwards
Staff Writers

Teresa Andrews knew what was in the syringes Army doctors had prepared for members of her National Guard unit, and she was having none of it.

At dusk Jan. 12, 1991, a couple of doctors and two medics arrived unannounced at the 1148th Transportation Company's camp in the Saudi Arabian desert, not far from the Kuwaiti border. One of them wore a cowboy hat and boots. They told the company commander to line everybody up for shots.

Mrs. Andrews, a staff sergeant during the Persian Gulf War, bolted from the tent. She didn't get far before officers corralled her, dragging her kicking and screaming back to where the rest of her Augusta-based Army National Guard unit had lined up.

"They told me if I didn't take the shot, they'd give me an Article 15," Mrs. Andrews said of the punishment threat that could result in a reduction in rank, loss of pay and extra duty. "I told them they could give me an Article 15 and keep the shot."

The shot, which she said left a "goose egg" on her left arm for two weeks, was a vaccination against anthrax. The military feared that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would use anthrax against allied forces during Operation Desert Storm.

Members of the 1148th and other soldiers who served in the gulf war say they received little advance warning about the shots and were not given the option of refusing what some - including Mrs. Andrews - had heard was an experimental drug.

Now, Mrs. Andrews and thousands of others question whether the shots and other drugs they took are partly to blame for health problems many of them started experiencing after the war, despite the military's arguments to the contrary.


Men with syringes It appears that the doctors giving the shots had concerns, too. According to members of the unit, and records obtained by The Augusta Chronicle, the physicians who administered the shots did not sign their names on the soldiers' shot records, as required by the military.

The 1148th's supply sergeant, Charles Cramer, recalled having just finished dinner when the doctors and medics arrived at their camp near King Khalid Military City, an operations base where thousands of soldiers were nervously awaiting the start of the ground war. Mr. Cramer said a number of 1148th members were leery about the shots, and his own anxieties rose when one doctor told him he wasn't going to document the inoculation.

"If this stuff goes bad, they damn sure ain't going to come looking for me," Mr. Cramer recalled the doctor saying.

Capt. Anthony Franklin, the 1148th's company commander, eventually had Mr. Cramer document the shots on the soldiers' personal health history so there would be a record of the vaccination.

The immunization record of a unit member shows Mr. Cramer's signature in the space reserved for physicians, indicating that he administered VACCA1, the designation for anthrax vaccine, on Jan. 12.

Other shots documented on the guardsman's personal health history were signed off on by physicians.

Another Army unit from the area had similar experiences with the anthrax shot.

Jim Vause, the commander of Aiken's 450th Ordnance Company during the gulf war, recalled the unit being herded into buses and taken to King Khalid, where a colonel told him they were going to get anthrax shots. Doctors administering those shots also refused to annotate the soldiers shot records. Some people who were given the vaccine began throwing up right away.

photo: metro
  Staff Sgt. Teresa Andrews, pictured during a break in action, developed breast cancer and other illnesses after returning home from the Persian Gulf War. Many veterans suspect that vaccines and other medications have caused their illnesses.
SPECIAL
Mr. Vause, a captain at the time, said he told the colonel that the doctors' refusal was improper military procedure and warned that soldiers would have no legal recourse if "someone sires a deformed child and wanted to do a follow-up on this." He was immediately scolded by his superior and told to follow orders or face the consequences, Mr. Vause said.

"I was told I would be relieved of command and put into the stockade," he said. "It was going to happen."

No coverup The sad truth is that gulf war veterans may never find out what's causing the health problems many of them say are affecting them.

The federal government says it's not covering up anything; it just doesn't know.

Scientists can't link soldiers to certain areas or certain vaccines because no one knows entirely who got what and who went where.

Who got shots was considered a matter of operational security. Record-keeping was sporadic at best. Some units prepared rosters and checked off names as they came through the line; some had troops sign their own names as they came through; and some were hesitant to document the shots at all, said Frank O'Donnell, a retired Army colonel and a medical consultant for the Department of Defense's Deployment Health Support Directorate who was stationed in the gulf as a medical officer.

At the time, it was no secret that the United States was using the anthrax vaccine on soldiers, but what the world didn't know was that the DOD had enough vaccine to immunize only about 150,000 people, when about 500,000 were on the ground, Dr. O'Donnell said.

The idea was to keep the Iraqis from finding out which units were vulnerable. Word went out that this was secret, he said. Soldiers weren't briefed about why they were getting the shots.

"The bottom line, and the lesson learned from that experience, is that's probably the last way, or the worst way, to give a bunch of soldiers shots - to scare people by giving them shots," Dr. O'Donnell said. "We ended up not really telling people what the good intentions were, but scaring the bejesus out of them with the way we did it.

"No one in 1991 was worried about proving who got the vaccine in 1997. Only in retrospect do we wish we had documentation to find out what's making people sick."

Biological warfare Many gulf veterans say they know what's making them sick: the vaccine shots for anthrax and the nerve agent botulinum. The military contends that hasn't been proven, but some are not buying into it.

A lawsuit against the sole American manufacturer and distributor of the anthrax vaccine, BioPort Corp., is being contested in the U.S. District Court for the Western District in Michigan. The suit contends that the company changed its manufacturing process for the anthrax vaccine and the version sold to the military after 1990 did not conform to standards established by the Food and Drug Administration when it approved the drug in 1970.

A report from the U.S. General Accounting Office states that in 1990 the Michigan facility that manufactures the vaccine changed the types of filters and fermenters it used in order to reduce processing time and increase volume. The changes were made to increase production before the onset of the war, according to the October 2001 report.

The GAO, the congressional agency that audits federal programs, further states in the report that an unpublished 1990 study by the DOD found that the anthrax vaccines had a hundredfold increase in antigen levels - bacteria to stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies - after the filter changes.

"They changed manufacturing processes ... and they ended up giving a vaccine that was 10 times more potent in strength than what it was supposed to be," said Stephen Robinson, the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center Inc., an advocacy group for these veterans.

The botulinum toxoid vaccine was an "investigational drug" that had not been fully approved and licensed by the FDA at the time of the war, which typically means consent is required of those being inoculated. However, the DOD received permission from the FDA to administer the drug without "informed consent," saying that to do otherwise wouldn't be feasible in a combat theater.

A law passed since, in 1999, mandates that only the president can order troops to take vaccines without informed consent.

In addition to the anthrax vaccine - Mr. Vause and Mr. Cramer said their units were not immunized for botulinum - soldiers were told to take Pyridostigmine Bromide, or PB pills, as a precaution against chemical nerve agents.

But they were soon ordered to stop taking the pre-treatment, which came in packets of 18 pills. Mr. Cramer said he was never told why they had to stop taking the pills. Mr. Vause said he was told the tablets might interact adversely with the anthrax vaccine.

The PB pills were doled out because the military feared that Iraq had obtained the Russian nerve agent soman. A soldier exposed to soman would likely die within about two minutes unless he injected himself with the antidote, Dr. O'Donnell said. The PB pills were supposed to give the antidote a better chance of working.

When intelligence suggested that a chemical attack was imminent, orders would come that troops in the area should take PB pills, Dr. O'Donnell said. When the threat cleared, they were ordered to stop.

The military learned after the war that Iraq never had soman.

"Of course, since the stakes were pretty high, I think it's fair to say the system erred on affording our troops as much protection as was possible," Dr. O'Donnell said.

Lessons learned If U.S. forces return to Iraq to topple the Hussein regime, the anthrax vaccine will likely be the primary shot given to prepare for biological warfare, according to Dr. O'Donnell. The Defense Department has learned from its mistakes and is now fine-tuning an automated information system that will log who gets immunizations in the field.

The lack of reliable records has thwarted any chance of accurately linking gulf war illnesses to the anthrax vaccine, Dr. O'Donnell said. However, studies based on questionaires that ask about symptoms, and what veterans were exposed to, seem to show a statistical association between the vaccine and subsequent ill health.

"The upshot of it is, you have gulf war veterans years later who maybe develop health problems, and some of them are suspicious of these shots they got in the gulf," Dr. O'Donnell said. "(Doctors) ask, 'Well what shots did you get?' and they say they think it was the anthrax vaccine. They may not be sure."

Mrs. Andrews knows she got the anthrax vaccine but doesn't know whether it contributed to her health problems.

In 1996, she learned she had breast cancer. None of her grandmothers, aunts or sisters have had breast cancer, she said.

She said her husband and her mother were more upset about it than she was. Surgery and chemotherapy seem to have eradicated the disease.

As an X-ray technician at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers in Augusta, she has seen several members of her unit there, including Doug Scott, who didn't survive his bout with cancer. Mrs. Andrews made the connection between his cancer and her own.

photo: metro
  Some soldiers were ordered to take Pyridostigmine Bromide pills, used as a pre-treatment for a nerve agent.
CHRIS THELEN/STAFF
She also frequently gets a numbness and tingling in her hands and feet, making them feel as if they've gone to sleep. Every year, she gets bronchitis, and that had never happened before she returned from the war, she said.

She said a doctor at the VA center in Decatur, Ga., told her that her problems are in her head.

If nothing else, however, her battle with cancer has made her better able to relate to patients she serves in her job.

"I understood what a lot of patients had been telling me, that people don't care," she said. "There's no compassion. People don't care."

A lot of veterans say the federal agency that's supposed to care for them, the VA, has let them down during the past decade.

The VA tells them their health problems are imagined, the veterans say. They've applied for disability compensation but have been turned down repeatedly.

Veterans and their advocates say they know why:

Money.

ABOUT THE SERIES

The Augusta Chronicle tracked down 102 of the 166 men and women who served with Augusta's 1148th Transportation Company during the Persian Gulf War and looked at what has happened to its members and their families since, and what could happen if U.S. forces return to the gulf.

SUNDAY: The 1148th Transportation Company's job of hauling fuel during the war put its reservists all over the theater of combat, exposing them to almost every hazard associated with Desert Storm.

MONDAY: On Jan. 12, 1991, members of the 1148th were injected with the anthrax vaccine, in some cases against their will.

TUESDAY: When their bodies began deteriorating after the gulf war, some veterans say, they didn't get the help they needed from the federal agency charged with caring for them.

WEDNESDAY: There is growing evidence that the men and women who served in Desert Storm are not the only victims of gulf war-related health problems.

THURSDAY: Some fear another war with Iraq could bring a repeat of the health problems plaguing so many Persian Gulf War veterans.

Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225.

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