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Air Force Reservists Break Ranks on Vaccination

Military: The service requires anthrax shots. But some pilots who also fly for airlines are protesting, claiming risks to their health and careers.

March 21, 2000|AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAVIS, Calif. — Maj. Ramona Savoie and Maj. James Hechtl were not the type to question authority. They were patriots first, Air Force Reserve pilots second and commercial pilots third.

But facing a military requirement that they be vaccinated against germ warfare--specifically the deadly anthrax virus--the Travis Air Force Base reservists found themselves caught between military duty and civilian responsibility.

If the anthrax vaccine is safe, why did the couple know people who had suffered rashes, immune system disorders and seizures after taking just a few of the required six shots in the anthrax series? Even if the chances of a bad reaction were slight, how could they in good conscience take any risk with the lives of their commercial passengers?

"The price you put on 150 lives is incalculable," said Hechtl, a pilot with Southwest Airlines.

"We do owe it to our passengers to be in the best health we can be; we owe it to our crew," added Savoie, who flies the Oakland-to-Dallas route for American Airlines.

Not to mention the fact that becoming incapacitated in any way could jeopardize the Gulf War veterans' careers in the lucrative commercial field, where pilots are not even allowed to take cold medicine for fear it will dull their senses.

Savoie had one more reason for concern: She was in a fertility program, trying to get pregnant. Now, at 45, she is expecting twins.

So the two became unlikely leaders of an unlikely group of protesters: Air Force Reserve pilots who make their living flying commercial jets.

On Monday, they joined 15 other pilots at a Davis news conference calling for an immediate cessation of the anthrax vaccination program. Most have shunned their weekend warrior duty for months to avoid having to disobey a direct vaccination order.

"There is a time for blind obedience; we know that," said Lt. Col. Rick Morris, a Delta Air Lines pilot who transferred to a reserve desk job to avoid the inoculations. "But this is not wartime, [and] everybody's being told to close those eyes."

The news conference was organized by Washington, D.C., attorney Mark Zaid, who has been civilian counsel in many of the courts martial involving anthrax vaccine refusals. He was an attorney in the nation's first such case, that of an active-duty airman from Travis.

Even before it was ordered for all troops in 1998, the vaccination stirred controversy because of questions about efficacy and possible connections to illness among Gulf War veterans.

The military maintains that the vaccine is perfectly safe, pointing out that more than 400,000 service members have taken it and only 620 have reported adverse effects. Of those, only 70 took time off work, said Army medical representative Virginia Stephanakis.

Zaid said that number is meaningless because many problems are never reported. Pilots, in particular, do not want to jeopardize their flying status by acknowledging less than perfect health, he said.

At Travis, about half of the 3,000 reservists have started the series of shots. Base spokesman Lt. Tom Crosson said he had taken three and had "no reactions" at all. He would not comment further on the reservists' actions.

Nationwide, more than 10,000 Air Force reservists and 22,000 Air National Guard members have been inoculated, Stephanakis said.

Airline companies have not taken a position on the anthrax vaccine, though many of their pilots are in the reserves. At Southwest Airlines, spokeswoman Linda Rutherford said, about one in 10 pilots are reservists.

Airlines have a somewhat symbiotic relationship with the military. The service pays the millions that it costs to train a pilot. When that pilot is ready to move on, the airlines provide flexibility for them to continue to serve their country with as little as 24 hours' notice.

That was how Savoie ended up at American and Hechtl with Southwest while still piloting gigantic military transport planes on both war and relief missions to Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia and elsewhere.

Travis continued to be a big part of their social lives, too. It was, Savoie said, "like the lodge without the hats."

At their 1998 wedding, their squadron formed a tunnel with swords raised. Hechtl wore his dress blues and Savoie even slipped her medal-laden jacket over her white satin wedding dress during the reception.

When they heard last spring that anthrax vaccines would soon be required of reservists who enter war zones, the two automatically figured they would comply. Their medical records show they have taken dozens of shots in the past three years--from flu to typhoid--to meet reserve requirements.

But reports of protests and problems elsewhere caused them to seek more information. The Internet led them to conflicting government reports and to Zaid, who had testified before Congress on the subject.

Instead of disobeying orders, both Hechtl and Savoie tried to transfer to desk jobs last June, before any orders were issued.

While similar requests from peers were granted, theirs were turned down. Savoie opted to retire. But Hechtl, who at 38 is four years short of the 20 years required for military retirement benefits, is continuing to fight his denial with Zaid's help.

"We've put our full faith and trust in the U.S. government, we are such big supporters," Hechtl said. But "the more research we did [on the vaccine], the more questions we had."

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