Most U.S. troops interviewed said they were OK with the Department of Defense announcement earlier this month that the anthrax inoculation will once again become mandatory for anyone deploying downrange.
But some questioned the need for the shots and were less than enthused about getting or giving them.
The Pentagon announced that the series of six shots would be given to U.S. troops and emergency-essential DOD civilians and contractors already in or waiting to deploy to the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Several hundred thousand troops are expected to receive the vaccine under the program, which is to resume within 30 to 60 days of the Oct. 16 announcement by William Winkenwerder, the medical doctor who is assistant secretary of defense of health affairs.
“Anthrax, it’s not a threat,” said Spc. Vincent Grillo, 25, from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Grillo, a member of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment working in Samarra, Iraq, said he opted not to have the vaccine because he saw no reason to dose himself with a small amount of the poison, citing possible long-term effects and a general discomfort with the Army pumping him full of more shots.
It just isn’t necessary given the likelihood of an attack, he said. “Even the medics will tell you, ‘[expletive] that,’ ” he said.
Another soldier, who refused to give his name, said he turned the vaccine down when it was optional and has no plans to take it this time around, even if it is required.
He said he would just find a way to get marked as vaccinated without actually taking the shots.
Many, however, said there must be a reason DOD officials are changing the policy.
“If it’s something that they deem as a viable threat, I can see where you’d want to err on the side of safety,” said Spc. Robert Hawkins, a medic for Company D, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, based at Patrol Base Olson in Samarra. “It sucks getting shot again, but …”
Orchestrating a mass inoculation of servicemembers in the field would be a huge task, he said, considering the need to get the vaccine and syringes to all the outlying bases and to document accurately each soldier’s progress through the long series of shots.
“It’s a pain in the ass … but if it’s one of those things that’s a viable threat then, yeah, bring it on,” Hawkins said.
Bringing it on may not be as easy as it sounds.
Few members of the 2-505th chose to receive the vaccine before deploying, said Sgt. 1st Class Juan Alamonte, of the regiment’s medical platoon.
Alamonte said Wednesday he hadn’t heard soldiers would be ordered to receive the vaccination — not that he could dole it out at a moment’s notice even if that were the case.
Alamonte’s clinic at Forward Operating Base Brassfield-Mora doesn’t have any of the vaccine in stock, he said.
“We have nothing at all here, nor at our higher level,” he said.
Some troops in Europe, where the vaccine is more available, were ready to roll up their sleeves.
Capt. Mike Epper, who serves at the Military Equal Opportunity office at RAF Mildenhall, England, said he trusts the studies conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the safety of the vaccination.
Anecdotal evidence from his time in the Air Force also eases his mind.
“I’ve had lots of friends who’ve gotten the shot over the last five years and none of them have fallen down dead,” he said.
“I don’t have an issue with the shot myself. It’s just another order that I follow, and one that I am comfortable with.”
“Better safe than sorry,” was all Pfc. John Vozzelli, of the 22nd Signal Brigade, Darmstadt, Germany, would say.
And then there’s Sgt. 1st Class Latroy Smalls back in Iraq.
Smalls, who was required to have the vaccine before his first deployment, said he didn’t really care whether he would have to get it again because he’s almost out of the Army.
He didn’t finish the six-shot cycle the first time around, he said. He quit getting the shots as soon as it was no longer required. He got to number four, he said, then stopped going in for the vaccination.
“It feels like you’re being branded like a cow,” he said of the sensation the shot creates. “It really does burn.”
There’s little reason for soldiers to go through that experience these days, Smalls said.
“I don’t think there’s any threat, zero threat,” he said. “But at the same time, you don’t want to be reactive, you want to be proactive.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Ben Murray, Bryan Mitchell and Matt Millham contributed to this report.