For One Who Took the Anthrax Shot, the Pentagon Disappoints

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I'm not bitter. Really.

That's mostly because three months after rolling up my green sleeve for three shots of the anthrax vaccine, I feel fine. I'd agonized, fretted and taken a lot of nervous calls from home, but because my Army Reserve unit was going to Korea in September, I was required to take the shot. And in the end I simply didn't believe enough in refusing to take the punishment. When you're in the Army, you see, they own you. You go along, figuring their intentions, at least, are good, and you hope for the best.

But this is embarrassing. Pentagon officials spent Tuesday and Wednesday before the Senate Armed Service Committee, sheepishly telling the panel that its mandatory program to inoculate all 2.4 million active and reserve servicemen was a miserable failure.

It didn't crumble under congressional edict, public opinion or rebellion in the ranks, as we had hoped it would. They simply ran out of stuff to inject us with. The Pentagon, in keeping with the inimitable style of the military contract, left the manufacture of the vaccine to a single company, BioPort. Cash-poor BioPort was a sloppy operation, and the FDA shut it down until it got its act together. BioPort hasn't yet. The stockpile is running low and going sour. Some soldiers who have started the front-loaded series (You get three shots in six weeks, then at six months, then annually) will stop it — then presumably have to start all over again, getting more of the vaccine than they ever needed. I'm likely to be one of them.

Wednesday, two and a half years into the program and at least a year since BioPort was shut down, the Pentagon has decided to start looking for another supplier. Senators also urged them to buy out BioPort and take over the line. Either way, it'll be years before any fresh vaccine gets made.

"In retrospect, I wish that we would have immediately advertised for a second source," Marine Maj. Gen. Randy L. West, the Pentagon's senior adviser on chemical and biological protection, told the panel Tuesday. "We thought we were on safer ground than we turned out to be."

At the Associated Press' last count, 351 servicemen have refused the shot; 73 out of 445,000 injected so far have reported serious side effects. After three months in neither group, it's been my experience that those 351 thought they were on more dangerous ground than they turned out to be.

But what servicemen like me feared, beyond the shot itself, was that the Pentagon would have neither the will nor the wherewithal to take care of us should this supposed dose of protection have the opposite effect. We didn't need guarantees — just trust in the simple competence of those distant superiors.

Their performance so far has been less than inspiring.