Deadly doses 

What’s gone awry with the military’s anthrax vaccine program?

While there’s little doubt that some people are born agitators, Kathy Hubbell is definitely not one of them. Until July of 2000, Hubbell, a 17-year Missoula resident who operates a public relations and marketing firm out of her home in the South Hills, was perfectly content with the everyday challenges and rewards of life in western Montana.

Almost a year and a half ago, Hubbell received an e-mail from her daughter-in-law expressing concern about the anthrax vaccination program that Hubbell’s son, a 27-year-old senior airman then stationed at a West Coast Air Force Base, had begun receiving prior to his deployment overseas. (His name and other details have been omitted at Hubbell’s request). The e-mail stated that a number of her son’s fellow airmen had become sick after receiving the vaccines, which all active military personnel had been ordered to receive under the Clinton administration and then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen to combat the threat of biological warfare.

Hubbell regularly visited her son before each of his overseas deployments, ever since the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Dharan, Saudi Arabia. (Her son lived in the towers and had been returning to the complex when the bombs went off). She flew down for her visit with a healthy load of skepticism. “I thought they had fallen into some nutty conspiracy ring,” she says, with a rueful chuckle. During her visit, Hubbell heard enough from her son and his wife to want to investigate further. She borrowed a computer and surfed the Internet, looking to find information that was free of hyperbole. “I wanted to find a site that treated the issue dispassionately and presented facts,” she says. “And that turned out to be Sonnie Bates’ Web page.”

Bates is a former Air Force major who refused to take the anthrax shots after witnessing firsthand the devastating side effects of the vaccine on a number of personnel in his unit at the Dover Air Force Base in 1999. After being threatened with a court-martial—a fate suffered by many of the hundreds of service members who have refused the shots—Bates was expelled from the Air Force on a general discharge after his story aired on 60 minutes in February of 2000.

“When I read Sonnie’s letter to his commanding officer [which outlined his reasons for refusing the shots], that’s what I saw, back-to-back-to-back facts,” says Hubbell. “That’s when I knew there was a serious problem.”

Hubbell is now president of the Anthrax Vaccine Network, a nonprofit group designed to provide support for sick service members and their families, to bring an end to the anthrax vaccination program, and to change the system that fostered the problem. The Network also claims that at least six servicemen or women have died as a result of the anthrax vaccine. Among other Network board members are Sonnie Bates and Gloria Graham, whose son is considered 100 percent disabled by Veterans Affairs (VA) due to the shots.

Before Major Sonnie Bates was transferred from Texas to Dover Air Force Base in Maryland in the summer of 1999, he knew that he needed to get up-to-date on his vaccinations, given that he was scheduled for an overseas deployment later that year.

“I went to the base hospital and they said I was all caught up,” says Bates. He then asked about the anthrax vaccine, which he had not yet received. “I told them to bring it on, let’s get it done. My shot record is loaded up with all kinds of shots I had taken before. I was like most people. I figured vaccines were like vitamins, the more you got the better off you were.”

Bates was told to wait until he got to Dover for the shots, a delay for which he is now grateful. At Dover, he discovered that a large number of the 9th Airlift Squadron had been laid low after receiving the vaccines. “I began talking to these people and their stories were just incredible,” Bates says. “If it had been one person, I would’ve said, ‘Well, poor dude, I feel bad for him.’ But when you have 15 people who say ‘I can’t fly anymore and I was healthy before taking the anthrax vaccine,’ there’s something wrong with that picture.”

An unofficial survey of the squadron conducted by a captain with a background in research revealed the startling scope of the adverse reactions. Out of 252 servicemen and women surveyed, 81 (32 percent) reported having “probable systemic reactions.” While that number falls within the 5-percent to 35-percent parameters set by the Office of the Army Surgeon General for the vaccine, most of these symptoms did not “go away after a few days,” as the Army Surgeon General claimed they would.

The most common effects noted by the squadron were joint and/or muscle pains, loss of energy, constant tiredness, reduced concentration and short-term memory loss. These symptoms are particularly troubling for men and women who fly aircraft, which some critics say goes a long way toward explaining the recent surge of commercial pilots who have resigned their commissions with the Air National Guard.

Though some anthrax-vaccine patients have shown a positive response to treatment via doxycycline, an antibiotic used to treat anthrax itself, at least six deaths and a number of severe disabilities have been blamed on the vaccine, a pattern the military has consistently denied.

Thomas Colosimo, a former senior airman in the Air Force currently on “temporary medical retirement,” is one of the unlucky ones. Colosimo received the first four of the six-shot vaccine regimen between February of 1998 and July of 1999. In testimony before the Committee on Government Reform in October 2000, Colosimo, a former weightlifter, states that he suffered a wide array of physical ailments during that time, with the most intense episodes occurring immediately after the vaccinations. When he was ordered to take a fifth shot in March of 2000, Colosimo decided he “couldn’t take the risk.” With help from his parents, Colosimo contacted Rep. John Peterson (R–Penn.), who intervened and helped him gain access to army medical specialists.

Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Colosimo’s condition steadily worsened, and by the time he was admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in May of 2000 for “anthrax intoxication,” Colosimo was suffering from severe weight loss, vertigo, short-term memory loss, shortness of breath, confusion, tunnel vision and painful scalp cysts, among other symptoms. He also began blacking out regularly and experienced extended episodes of delirium.

Gloria Graham, Colosimo’s mother and secretary of the Anthrax Vaccine Network, has seen her faith in her country and the military destroyed as a result of her son’s ordeal.

“I am a daughter of a World War II veteran, I am married to a Vietnam veteran, and my son is a Gulf War veteran, so I have the military in my blood,” she says. “But we have a grandson who is 8 years old, and if he ever tries to go in the Air Force, I’ll shoot him in the foot.”

Colosimo now takes a broad array of medications to control his condition. His VA disability pension covers his medical care, while his wife earns a stipend as his full-time caregiver. Still, Colosimo (who no longer gives interviews, as the stress exacerbates his condition) and his mother bristle at the poor treatment he has received from the military and its medical staff, who repeatedly asserted that he was fabricating his symptoms. (Last year, Colosimo’s wife had to perform CPR to get him breathing again, during which a military policeman grabbed him by the nipple and shouted that he was a “faker.”)

“You’re an immovable object fighting an irresistible force that has unlimited funds,” says Graham. “It’s unbelievable. It blows Americana and apple pie right out of the water.”

Theories of the reasons behind the adverse reactions are both numerous and uncertain, a situation made worse by the military’s code of secrecy. Activists point to quality control problems at BioPort Corporation, the lab contracted by the Department of Defense to manufacture the vaccine, as one likely cause. BioPort has failed seven consecutive inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1992, and a recent General Accounting Office report slammed Bioport for not informing the FDA of changes in its manufacturing process that altered dose potencies by a factor of 100.

Bates has since filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, seeking, among other things, to have the military’s anthrax vaccine declared an “Investigational New Drug.” It would require each serviceman or woman to first sign an informed consent form that outlines the potential risks of receiving the vaccine. At least two other wrongful death suits are pending against BioPort.

Meanwhile, 7 million doses of the vaccine lay dormant behind BioPort’s walls, quarantined by the FDA. And while these are the same vaccines that may have caused illnesses in so many military personnel, Sonnie Bates fears the military plans to use them anyway. “Once the FDA rolls in and approves this [Bioport’s manufacturing process], which I know they will, I don’t see how they can go back and approve the prior product, the stuff that’s quarantined right now,” he says. “But I think they will and I think the troops are going to get it.”

Despite the monumental task ahead of her, Kathy Hubbell stands firm. Although her son has received only three of the shots and has thus far experienced only minor fatigue, she still boils at the thought of it. “I got so angry I couldn’t see straight,” she says. “That’s my son they shot that stuff into.”

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