He's Ready to Take a Bullet, but How About an Anthrax Shot?

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EDITOR'S NOTE: To take the anthrax shot or not? That is the question facing hundreds of thousands of military personnel, who are under orders to roll up their sleeves for the controversial jab or face dismissal. Among those making the decision is TIME.com writer Frank Pellegrini, who is on leave as he undergoes training for the Army Reserves. Having completed boot camp in Fort Jackson, S.C. — regular readers may recall his series describing his experiences there — he is now in the Army's journalism school. In this supplement to his series, he describes how he is dealing with the decision.

A while back, about 10 weeks into my Army career, I finally came up with a nice pithy answer to give drill sergeants when they asked me why I had signed up. "Fun and profit," I'd say, with the slightest hint of a grin. They never smiled back, and now I'm maybe finding out why: However much like a G.I. Joe fantasy camp (complete with pay and free food) the military may sometime seem, there is always a Bummer coming.

Now mine has arrived, in the form of the anthrax vaccination program that has been decreed mandatory for all service personnel whose near future includes a trip to the wrong corner of the world. Around here, we call it The Shot, and because my New York reserve unit is bound for South Korea in September, it's coming in March to an arm near me. And suddenly, it's soldier time.

The Shot is meant to protect me in case those starving Stalinists across the border decide, in a disastrous fit of pique, to gas us. My March injection is meant to be the first in a six-week, three-shot regimen that will then require semi-annual and, finally, annual boosters until I'm out of the service and safe at home with just one paycheck again. Which sounds like a fine idea. Except that a handful of soldiers are blaming The Shot for any number of physical ravages (thyroid malfunctions, autoimmune disorders, heart stoppages, etc.), and a growing number of others are refusing to take it on the grounds that the Pentagon is out to guinea-pig them into an early grave. All of which, admittedly, was easy enough for me to be impassive about — until it was my turn.

So I did my homework — with the full encouragement of my superiors here, who allow carefully that the shot is "controversial" — and wouldn't you know it, the Web is an excellent place to start. The Army (www.armymedicine.mil and www.anthrax.osd.mil, for starters) says the shot is well-tested, sterile (meaning it contains dead spores, not live ones) and quite safe. Some sore arms, sure. Yes, some "more serious adverse reactions may occur in a few people." But there are "no known long-term side effects." Reassured?

Congressman Chris Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Government Reform national security subcommittee, has a problem with the part about "known." He calls the vaccine primitive and untested and dubbed the mandatory vaccination program "a gigantic mistake," and his panel has called for the Pentagon to make the shots optional until a better version comes along. But Shays doesn't have anywhere near the votes needed to get the shots stopped. Ask folks around here about Congress riding to my rescue, and they shake their heads and smile.

Head to the Internet's outer fringes, and the alarm bells start sounding. This (with the exception of that genuinely scary "60 Minutes" report) is where most of the aforementioned horror stories are. Some afflicted Gulf War veterans blame The Shot for their woes, although when you hear how many government pills soldiers popped over there to protect them from Saddam it's hard to figure what might have been responsible for whatever they might have come down with.

The anthrax vaccine itself has been in use for 20 years in various cow-related occupations (remember when anthrax was only a bovine disease and a heavy metal band?) and was FDA-approved at one point, though the inspectors haven't been too crazy about the production line at maker BioPort's big new plant. BioPort itself is now swamped with demand and cash flow problems, thanks to the Pentagon's bulk order, prompting more worries about the quality and safety of future batches.

As an inveterate gambler I pay some attention to odds, and the consensus is that they're in my favor. Of almost 400,000 who have received the shot so far, the Pentagon reports only 102 "adverse reactions" (with just 14 serious enough to warrant time off from work). Meanwhile, various news articles quote anti-inoculation groups as saying the figure is about a thousand. So, if I split the difference and quadruple the military's numbers — to, say, 400 — that's still 1,000 to 1 that I come away with nothing worse than a bump on my arm, which is not bad. Not bad at all.

But there are odds to consider in the other direction. This thing is supposed to work on maybe two of some 30 known strains of anthrax, and even then only semi-reliably on so-called "aerosolized" anthrax, meaning the kind you inhale if Saddam or Kim Jong-Il does his thing. And don't think the bad guys don't have some idea of which strains we're protected against and which would tear our lungs out from the inside. The way I figure it, the odds of a weekend warrior like me getting gassed during my stay in a bio-hot spot — and expiring horribly while all my comrades rub their sore arms and cross themselves gratefully — are a hell of a lot longer than 1,000 to 1.

There are, of course, other reasons to roll up your sleeve than liking or disliking the odds. One officer at the school here put the Duty as eloquently as I've heard yet. It goes something very nearly (I try not to scribble in front of people here; it makes them a little nervous, especially in the middle of a class on media relations) like this: "The story that needs to be written about this is that as soldiers who raised our right hand and took the oath we have an obligation to obey.... The issue is that we need to have confidence in the leadership, that they've done their homework and made the right decision and won't hang us out to dry if something goes wrong. But we don't really have a choice."

This, as you've probably guessed already, is not that story. Yes, we took the oath — we promised to honor and obey — but infidelity is a valid reason for divorce, and there's reason to be cynical about the Pentagon's record on not hanging servicemen "out to dry" on medical issues. Plenty of veterans of the Free Cigarettes War, the Agent Orange War and the Gulf War Illness War will attest to that. The Pentagon, the CDC and the NIH are all working furiously on a new, safer vaccine, as well as studying ways to make the current one easier on the arm than it is now. Which would only serve to make me feel like a sucker if they, or Congress, get their act together sometime next fall.

Do I wish the program was voluntary? Sure. I joined the Army fully realizing that they use real bullets out there, and real warheads, and came in fully prepared to risk dying of all the threats I thought I'd accounted for. But if I had a clean choice I'd call William Cohen tomorrow, thank him sincerely for his concern (and wish him luck with the shot hetook) and happily take my chances with the Koreans. But of course that's not how the order-giving business works, and if you want to be in it, whether for Country, Adventure or College Money, you have to relinquish some claim to making your own calls. (Yes, they can strap you down and stick you while you scream, if they want, but it seems unlikely. Think of the p.r.) But until Congress catches up, or until I get pregnant, it seems to me that the realhonorable thing, for this soldier, is to go along or get thrown out.

Few of us, though, joined the Army alone. There's a young Marine who was honorably discharged because his first few shots made his mothersick — from worry, supposedly. There are also a lot of part-timers like me who have to decide how much risk this Army is worth based in part on the feelings of wives and girlfriends who never thought it was worth risking anything for in the first place. This, again, makes the odds extremely cloudy — more of my life than my health is at stake here — and the question of Duty even more so. The Army Values we are presented with — yes, it's even come to that — unhelpfully define duty as "Fulfill Your Obligations." But obligations to what? Duty to whom?

I am ready to take my chances. Ready to dust off that oath of last October, the one about following orders, and take The Shot and be a soldier. But until that order comes, incontrovertible, with The Shot at one end and a dishonorable discharge at the other, I will keep trying to wriggle my way out of this, as honorably as I can. I'm still working the phone, talking to the Army's people who can sometimes enforce the Army's regulations at their discretion. It's going to be a bummer either way.

Read Frank's past dispatches from boot camp

Anthrax Shot or Not?