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Last Updated

29 Jul 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2003


No Vaccine, No Glory, Navy Says

A sailor's decision to refuse the anthrax inoculation leads to a demotion and a 60-day sentence.

By Mark Arax, Times Staff Writer

LEMOORE, Calif. His ship came home six weeks ago from the Persian Gulf, but Troy Goodwin could only watch as 200 of his fellow sailors were given a hero's welcome at this naval air base in the heart of California cotton country.

He had waited eight months to see his family, but no sooner had he landed than he was carted off to a cinder-block barracks that serves as a brig. For the next 40 days, the airplane mechanic with the once-spotless record served his sentence, filling sandbags and pulling weeds under the 105-degree sun.

He hadn't abused drugs or stolen property or gone AWOL. Instead, the Navy was punishing him for refusing to submit to an anthrax vaccination that he believed could damage his health and prevent him and his wife from conceiving a healthy baby.

Last week, the 32-year-old Goodwin completed his time, took off the blue badge of shame that had been affixed to his uniform, and returned to his family and squadron a different soldier.

After six years of proud service, he had been demoted and his pay had been docked. He now finds himself nagged by a thought that would have seemed inconceivable just a year ago: Maybe he made a mistake in believing that the military could be a career.

"The whole experience has left me feeling very degraded," Goodwin said. "I guess you could say I was a model soldier. Everything the military asked me to do, I did. But I wasn't going to subject my body to a vaccine that's not proven to work and could have serious side effects.

"Yes, I took an oath to obey orders, but I don't feel this order was a lawful one," he said. "I didn't sign up to blindly trust the military with my health."

His superiors say Goodwin gave them little choice but to punish him.

"As far as the Navy is concerned, this is a pretty simple, straightforward matter," said Dennis McGrath, public affairs officer at the Lemoore base. "If you're going into a combat zone where anthrax may be used, you need to take the appropriate inoculations to preserve not only your health but the health of your fellow soldiers.

"He disobeyed a lawful order, but because he's a good worker, they decided not to court-martial him," McGrath said. "Under the circumstances, he got the least amount of punishment a sailor could get."

Nearly 1 million military personnel have received the anthrax vaccine since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, including more than 300,000 during the last year, according to military figures. Despite questions about the vaccine's efficacy and possible health risks ranging from sterility to cardiac arrest to immune disorders, fewer than 600 soldiers have refused it. Depending on their prior records, they have been court-martialed or given a nonjudicial punishment similar to Goodwin's.

Critics say the Pentagon has exploited America's fear of terrorists and the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to push a vaccine that has sickened hundreds of soldiers and led to a handful of deaths. Citing health risks, one lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington seeks to force the government to acknowledge the vaccine's experimental status.

"The military well knows how many deaths and illnesses this experimental vaccine has caused, and yet they continue to insist otherwise," said John Richardson, a former F-16 pilot and policy analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff who stands at the forefront of the opposition.

"They can't find weapons of mass destruction, and yet they are throwing people in jail who refuse to take a vaccine that they claim protects against weapons of mass destruction," he said.

The Pentagon says critics overlook the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine.

"The idea that we're pushing something dangerous and experimental onto our soldiers is nonsense, absolute nonsense," said James Turner, a Pentagon spokesman. "The FDA has certified the safety and efficacy of this vaccine. There have been no deaths, and the side effects are not unlike other similar vaccines."

But the FDA-approved product literature acknowledges the deaths of five military personnel who became sick after taking the vaccine. And in a memo in 1998, the secretary of the Army conceded that the vaccine was "unusually hazardous."

Only three months ago, Rachael Lacy, a 22-year-old Army reservist at Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin, died of an infection after receiving inoculations against anthrax and smallpox.

Before refusing the shots in December, Goodwin said, he spent six months studying the vaccine's pros and cons. He and his wife, Andrea, who had two children from a previous marriage, decided to have a baby. Among the vaccine's long list of possible adverse effects are birth defects.

"No one can say for sure whether this vaccine even protects against anthrax," said Goodwin, a native of Alabama whose FA-18 Hornet squadron had been assigned to the aircraft carrier Constellation. "But what they do know is that it can make some people very sick. I felt like it was senseless, especially since we were going to try to have a baby."

If Goodwin began to waver under pressure from the ship's command, his wife held firm back home.

"At one point, it became a battle of wills between me and them, for my husband's conscience," she said. "They made his life miserable and treated him like a common criminal."

Goodwin wrote a letter to his superiors explaining his reasons for refusing the vaccine. He stressed that his stance wasn't a ploy to avoid serving in the war; he believed in his heart that the vaccine's health risks outweighed its benefits.

The Navy began meting out its punishment almost immediately. In February, Goodwin was denied liberty during a port call. He was no longer allowed to work on the Hornets' mechanical systems, a job that had earned him commendations. He was relegated to sanding and painting the frames.

Instead of counting those actions as part of Goodwin's 60-day sentence, the Navy waited until May to start the clock on his official punishment. The delay meant that Goodwin wouldn't be allowed to return to his family when he arrived home June 2.

The Constellation docked in San Diego, and the squadron was flown back to Lemoore. As soon as the transport plane pulled into the hangar that day, a senior chief petty officer met Goodwin. His wife had barely given him a hug and a kiss when he was led away to serve his time.

The brig, an open-roomed barracks with side-by-side bunks, was only a 10-minute walk from their house on the base, but it might as well have been a thousand miles.

Goodwin shared quarters with 15 other sailors who had earned the Navy's wrath for violations that had nothing to do with vaccines.

It was like boot camp all over again. His cigarettes were counted no more than five a day. And he couldn't touch or talk to his wife at church. Family visits were restricted to two hours each evening. His days were filled with menial labor. He couldn't go anywhere without the blue badge hanging from his left pocket.

"You feel branded," he said. "I felt like all the hard work I had done for my squadron was for nothing. They had completely turned their back on me."

The Navy demoted him one rank and cut his paycheck in half for two months. Andrea struggled at home to make ends meet. She thought it was beneath her husband and the other men to spend their mornings pulling weeds in the blistering heat. She marched right up to his superior officer and told him just how she felt. The next day, the weed detail ended.

"When this whole thing started, my husband wasn't jumping up and trying to start a mutiny or anything," she said. "It was just a personal decision, and they could have let it ride. But no. They decided to make an example out of him."

Last week, much to her surprise, Troy was let go two days early and walked through the front door with a big smile on his face. Five days back and he's still trying to find his home legs. He now wonders about signing up for a new tour of duty when this one ends in April 2005.

"They got me working below my skill level, doing things I did two or three years ago," he said. "Unless something changes, I'm going to think long and hard about reenlisting."