Former Elmendorf NCO loses anthrax battle with Air Force

Posted: Monday, March 20, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Refusing to take the anthrax vaccine has cost a former noncommissioned officer at Elmendorf Air Force Base his military career.

Staff Sgt. Craig Perry said he was preparing to sign up for a third hitch when he was ordered to get the vaccination.

Perry says he did some research and didn't like what he found. He didn't want the shots -- a series of six over an 18-month period.

Perry was a jet mechanic at Elmendorf, and that placed him in the category of personnel who could be sent overseas on short notice.

The Department of Defense has concluded that potential enemies might use biological weapons containing anthrax on American troops. All 2.4 million members of the armed forces eventually are scheduled to take the shots.

Perry got his vaccination order in October of 1999. By then, the shots had become controversial. Concerns had arisen about some potential long-term effects, like cancer, a danger that the Pentagon insists does not exist.

People like Perry remembered that similar assurances offered in the past have proved erroneous. Agent Orange. Atomic radiation. Possibly Gulf War Syndrome. In September, the Air Force Times ran a story about a biological warfare instructor who advised against the vaccine and was kept from reenlisting.

In October, when Perry got his orders, 17 people at Elmendorf had refused the shots and were facing punishment. Nationwide, more than 120,000 people have taken the shots. Only a few hundred have refused, according to national news reports.

Still, Perry worried about the shots, especially a warning that mentioned ''fertility problems.'' Now 33, he was about to get married and start a family. He and his fiancee saw this as a choice between Perry taking the shots and staying in the Air Force as planned or serving the months remaining on his tour and leaving.

''We made the decision to get out,'' Perry told the Anchorage Daily News. He told his bosses he would not be reenlisting and was assigned to finish his tour at a base in Virginia.

He figured the debate over his taking the vaccine would be moot because no foreign assignment was likely during the time he had remaining to serve.

But he was wrong. He had disobeyed an order. The Air Force busted him back to its lowest rank and then discharged him.

His supervisors gave him several chances over several months to change his mind. They offered counseling and reassurance. But in the end, there was no compromise, not even for a valued employee.

But of course, he's not an ''employee,'' said Lt. Col. Michael Gilbert, staff judge advocate at Elmendorf. ''Every person who comes into the military raises their hand and takes an oath. ... They are not employees. They are military members.''

Gilbert couldn't talk specifically about Perry, but he agreed the vaccination order probably is costing the Air Force some good people although ''not people who should remain in the military.''

Someone who has refused the vaccine might not be able to do the job one day and might endanger the rest of his unit, Gilbert said.

So Perry received a general discharge, which comes without any GI benefits.

As a civilian, Perry already is making $20,000 more a year than he was in the military. But Perry said he will continue trying to get his discharge upgraded to honorable.

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