Castle insists on response from military, Pentagon asserts vaccine program safe to continue

The News Journal

Defense Department officials haven't decided whether they'll cooperate with a request by Delaware's congressional delegation to investigate the anthrax vaccination program at the Dover Air Force Base.

They also expressed confidence that the controversial vaccination program should continue at Dover and throughout the military despite safety concerns.

Sens. Joe Biden and Tom Carper and Rep. Mike Castle on Tuesday were finalizing a joint letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees requesting an investigation into whether troops in Dover were used as guinea pigs in illegal experiments starting in 1999.

Castle said Tuesday the Air Force won't have a choice about whether to cooperate.

"There is no way they can ignore a letter from two senators and a representative," Castle said. "They can try to soft-pedal their response. We'll get their response and make a judgment about how good a response it is."

Castle said it may be necessary to call for an independent investigation.

"It may be we need an independent study similar [to], but not as large as, the 9/11 Commission report," he said. "If they choose not to be responsive, why not go the next step, and have the legislative or executive branch bring it out?"

Retired Air Force Maj. Hans Reigle was one of 55 pilots who left a reserve air wing at Dover rather than take the anthrax vaccinations.

Reigle ended his 20-year career in a nonflying staff position, for which the shot wasn't required. He said he hopes an investigation will restore the government's credibility and bring closure to the issue.

"Their word needs to become their bond," Reigle said. "They need to get rid of this Agent Orange perception, so when they tell you something's safe, you can believe them. That's when we'll know we have a good military."

The News Journal reported Sunday that a former Dover commander, retired Lt. Col. Felix Grieder, concluded after years of investigation that his troops were the subjects of illegal experiments at the base. The troops received anthrax vaccine that may have contained squalene. Some experts say even trace amounts of squalene can suppress the immune system, causing arthritis, neurological problems, memory loss and incapacitating migraine headaches.

Grieder halted the vaccination program, a move he said brought an end to his military career. Subsequent testing by the Food and Drug Administration detected squalene in varying amounts in the vaccine. The substance was detected in all the vaccine sent to Dover, but not in vaccine sent to other military installations. The military no longer tests for squalene, a substance that occurs naturally in the body and boosts a vaccine's effect.

Lt. Col. Frank Smolinsky, a spokesman for the secretary of the Air Force, stressed the safety of the vaccine, despite the claims of military personnel who say it made them ill.

"The FDA has approved the vaccine for use by the U.S. military, and we stand by the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. We believe it is an effective force protection measure," Smolinsky said. "There is no reason not to continue the anthrax vaccination program."

Maj. Cheryl Law, Dover Air Force Base's public affairs chief, said the vaccination program is continuing at the base.

Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner said the Department of Defense has not received a formal request for an investigation. The Air Force surgeon general's office pledged its help with any inquiry, but Smolinsky and Law said no decision has been made on whether to cooperate with the delegation's request.

The military has secretly experimented with squalene to test its ability to boost the effectiveness of some vaccines. The Defense Department has admitted conducting tests on human subjects using squalene in vaccines in Thailand. But the military denies it tested squalene in Dover and has said any contamination in the vaccine must have occurred accidentally.

Problems began at Dover in May 1999, after some troops in their 20s and 30s began developing illnesses normally associated with old age.

The military has said it suspects that the FDA conducted faulty tests and that the vaccine contained no squalene. It also contends that the amounts of squalene the FDA said were contained in the vaccine would have been too small to affect human health.

Contact investigative reporter Lee Williams at 324-2362 or lwilliams@delawareonline. com. Contact Hiran Ratnayake at 324-2547 or