Marines’ Refusal of Anthrax Vaccine Leads to Discharges


In rapid-fire succession, three young Marines have been busted out of the military for their refusal to accept anthrax vaccine shots, and two more face the same fate, in a series of courts-martial at the Marine Corps’ training center in the Mojave Desert.

The five, all lance corporals, are the first servicemen to resist to the degree of pleading not guilty at a court-martial for their refusals to take the vaccine, their attorney says. He estimated that more than 200 others have been administratively removed from the military or otherwise disciplined for refusing to accept the vaccine.

The five Marines contend that the vaccine is potentially unsafe, ineffective and unnecessary, and that the Pentagon has not sufficiently studied its effects, said Mark S. Zaid, a civilian lawyer.


He said he had hoped to defend their actions by calling witnesses to question the unknown risks of the vaccine.

But the military judge conducting the courts-martial, Lt. Col. Ken Martin, told Zaid he would not allow that defense tactic. He focused the proceedings on the narrow question of whether the Marines had violated the uniform code of military justice by refusing to obey an order. The five Marines conceded that, Zaid said, and so they offered no witnesses in their defense.

“From the Marines’ perspective, this was a protest defense, a matter of principle from which they would not sway,” Zaid said Wednesday.

Each of the cases so far have lasted three hours or less, after testimony from superiors that the Marines refused the orders.

On Wednesday, Jason Austin, 22, of Fritch, Texas, was found guilty, ordered to spend 30 days in the brig at Camp Pendleton and then receive a bad conduct discharge. On Monday, Michael Metzig, 20, of San Diego was similarly convicted, as was Jared Schwartz, 21, from Henderson, Ky., last Thursday.

The two remaining Marines, Michael McIntyre, 22, of Mt. Vernon, Wash., and Jared Johnston, 19, from Henryetta, Okla., will be court-martialed Monday.

The proceedings are being conducted at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, a sprawling desert training center about 130 miles east of Los Angeles.

At issue is an order by the Defense Department that, eventually, all military personnel be vaccinated against anthrax, a disease that normally preys on livestock but is considered one of the most deadly biological warfare agents ever developed.

So far, about 303,000 service personnel have taken the vaccination, which is administered in a series of six shots, said Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner.

The Department of Defense does not keep centralized records on how many service personnel have refused to take the shots, Turner said. Fewer than 70 people have complained of any adverse reactions, he said. Among the most serious was a sailor who suffered temporary paralysis, but most other reactions have been limited to swelling or redness of the arm or brief flu-like symptoms, he said.

At Twentynine Palms, these five Marines were the first to refuse the vaccine, said base spokesman 1st Lt. Vincent Vasquez.

“We in the Marine Corps don’t have the luxury of deciding which orders to obey and which to refuse,” he said. “We obey all lawful orders, period. That’s the issue here. It’s our obligation to make sure our Marines go into a combat zone with every weapon at their disposal, and the anthrax vaccine is our best weapon against this deadly threat.”

The vaccine has been administered to some troops since 1970 and has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, although in recent years critics have questioned its use.

Zaid is defending six other Marines, based at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, who also have refused to take the mandatory shots.

Their courts-martial are scheduled to begin Aug. 5, and Zaid said he will argue at a July 12 pretrial hearing that he be allowed to call witnesses to challenge the vaccine.