AF officer repeatedly refuses anthrax shot, but does not get day in court
By SCOTT SCHONAUER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 2, 2003
NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Even with his 33-year military career on the line, Lt. Col. Jay Lacklen wants the Air Force to court-martial him.
By refusing to take another anthrax shot earlier this year, he thought he would get his wish. Facing a military judge, Lacklen said, would allow him to argue that the Pentagon’s controversial vaccine contains a harmful booster called squalene, which he claims is causing a string of mysterious maladies in his squadron.
But instead of ordering him to court, his commander sent him on assignment to southern Spain.
While junior officers and enlisted servicemembers are getting thrown in jail for not taking the shot, Lacklen said his Dover, Del.-based squadron sent him on meaningless temporary duty to Naval Station Rota and Morón Air Base.
He believes the Air Force will not punish him because commanders are afraid they will lose in the courtroom.
“They’re scared,” said Lacklen, a reservist since 1981, “because I have the science” to win in court.
But in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes on Friday, Lacklen said his commander had given him until Friday to take the shot.
Large caches of biological and chemical weapons have yet to be found in Iraq and none was unleashed against U.S.-led troops during the war, but the military is continuing its goal to inoculate all of its 1.4 million servicemembers.
The Pentagon insists the vaccine is safe.
Right now, servicemembers take a series of six shots over the course of 18 months, along with an annual booster shot.
Almost half of the active-duty force has received the entire series of shots, but some have refused and paid dearly.
Since the military resumed inoculating servicemembers earlier this year, several have been booted out of the service or sent to jail.
In June, Navy aircraft mechanic Troy Goodwin, based at Lemoore, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times that he was sent to the brig after rejecting the shot.
In May, Army Reserve Pvt. Kamila Iwanowsk, 26, a petroleum specialist from Fort Drum, N.Y., refused the shot and received a bad-conduct discharge. She didn’t want to take it because, she said in a court-martial, it might harm any children she may bear.
On July 8, the military dismissed a Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based Marine helicopter pilot and sent him to jail for 25 days for not taking it. Lt. Erick Enz refused the vaccine on religious grounds.
More than 400 military personnel have been disciplined since the shot was made mandatory in 1998, according to the Pentagon. But Lacklen said he has avoided prosecution because his unit, the 326th Airlift Squadron, does not want the bad publicity.
On April 15, Lacklen refused in writing to take the shot. But instead of ordering him to take the vaccine, Lacklen said his commander, Lt. Col. Edward Poling, two days later grounded him and sent him to Spain.
When he returned, he was immediately sent to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois to work as a scheduler.
Lacklen, a Vietnam War veteran with more than 12,000 flight hours, said he was not needed in Spain or Illinois and suggests he was sent on temporary duty to “avoid the situation.”
After Lacklen refused his shot, a more junior officer, Capt. Paul Staquet, also refused in writing, using the same wording Lacklen had used, but signed his own name to it. When he gave the letter to the squadron, he said he was threatened with a court-martial and a discharge. The thought of possibly getting kicked out of the military with a bad-conduct discharge was enough to cause Staquet to reluctantly take the shots.
“Nobody wants to walk around with a conviction on your record,” said Staquet, who has not suffered any side effects from the shots, but supports Lacklen.
In a complaint filed with the Defense Department’s inspector general on June 5, Lacklen accused his commander of a double standard.
Poling did not return phone and e-mail messages seeking an explanation or comment for this story, but Col. Bruce Davis, 512th Airlift Wing commander, said, “I’m sure you know that, as a commander, I can’t comment on any incident that may end up in a courts-martial.”
“All military members should expect equal protection, and equal sanction, from the military legal system,” Lacklen wrote in the complaint. “This is not the case in this instance.”
This is not the first time Dover has been embroiled in controversy over the vaccine.
In 1999, dozens of C-5 pilots from the base reported side effects after taking the shot. One senior officer resigned and 40 percent of the pilots in the Reserve wing left rather than take a shot.
Concerns by the pilots prompted Col. Felix M. Grieder, commander of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover, to suspend the inoculation program, making it the first base to do so.
Since the base resumed the shots earlier this year, military personnel are reporting similar health problems they fear are caused by the shots.
Some of the aviators agreed to talk to Stars and Stripes on the condition their name is not used. They said they fear that if they talk, the Air Force will punish them for speaking out about the vaccine.
One pilot reported migraine headaches to the point of vomiting, temporary blindness and an itching rash that won’t go away. Others have reported severe joint pain. One aviator in his 30s had arthritis so bad he had to take a prescription pain reliever.
Crewmembers have also had problems. A loadmaster reported having blackouts and chronic dizzy spells. Another person suffered from vertigo.
One of the pilots said he isn’t sure if the vaccine caused his rash and other health problems but military doctors have done little to find out the cause. He said even if a military doctor thought there might be a link between the vaccine and the ailment, they would not admit it out of fear of retribution.
“We have seen with our own eyes those who are sick and watched them not get any help,” he said. “It’s shameful.”
Another pilot had a bad reaction with the first shot, but was told to continue taking the rest of the shots.
“It does concern me,” the pilot said. “I don’t want to take another shot until they can prove this is just coincidental.”
Lacklen has also had strange health problems after the first couple of shots. He has complained of joint pain and his fingers have developed odd-looking knots.
He doesn’t blame the vaccine for the health problems but alleges that a substance called squalene is the culprit.
Squalene is manufactured in the liver of humans and some animals. It is a building block to make hormones and other substances in our body. It is also found in some foods.
In vaccines, it is used as a booster to work faster and longer. However, it was not approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration to be used in the anthrax vaccine.
When Tulane University in 1999 found the presence of the additive in 1991 Persian Gulf War veterans, squalene’s safety became a hot topic. Some servicemembers speculated then that the anthrax vaccine might contain squalene as a booster and that is the reason for the side effects.
For years, the Pentagon denied there was any squalene in the shots. Then, the FDA tested all 50 lot numbers of the current vaccine in 1999 and found squalene traces in five of them. Dover Air Force Base received all five of these lot numbers.
The Pentagon says the amount of squalene found is so minute that it is “likely the result of squalene in the oil of a fingerprint not cleaned from the lab glassware.” The Defense Department has an entire page of questions and answers about squalene on its anthrax Web site, www.anthrax.osd.mil, disputing the significance of squalene in the shot.
Lacklen and some of the pilots at Dover are not buying the explanation. They want the Defense Department to hire an independent lab to test vaccine lots for squalene.
While the Pentagon asserts that the adjuvant in the anthrax vaccine is aluminum hydroxide, Lacklen and the sick pilots said the reason they are skeptical is because other bases, which may not have gotten the same squalene lot Dover received, had not had similar health problems.
Those who talked to Stars and Stripes said they are willing to resume the shots as long as they know for sure the lots don’t contain any trace of squalene.
“It’s not the vaccine, it’s what they added to it,” Lacklen said.
Not all of the pilots agree with Lacklen. One pilot said that there are those in the squadron who think Lacklen is way off base. They did not receive any side effects from the shots.
But other pilots who talked to Stripes consider Lacklen, who is married and has four daughters, almost a hero for risking his career and speaking out.
Lacklen said the Air Force should do more to find out why some members of the wing are experiencing so many health problems and whether the vaccine is the reason.
“If we had wrecked an airplane, they would have had a team of people come down and figure out what went wrong,” Lacklen said. “A lot of people have gotten sick, but nobody has come.”