AL ASAD, Iraq -- Lance Cpl. Jorge A. Pineda, a 24-year-old administration clerk with Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, had seen the horror of the smallpox vaccine.
He had seen two Marines in his unit develop an oozing, pus-filled wound that almost looked as if it necessitated the immediate amputation of the entire arm. The only thoughts in the young Marine’s mind were the avoidance of the painful shot, and the blemish it would create on his skin art.
“I didn’t want to take (the smallpox shot) because I thought it would hurt,” the Manhattan, N. Y., native said. “I’ve seen (how it looked) on other (Marines). I also didn’t want to have a scar on my tattoo.”
For Pineda and many other servicemembers, regularly scheduled shots and vaccinations of all kinds are an inescapable part of daily life while serving stateside in the United States military.
However, this pattern of needle pricks doesn’t end with the scheduling of a deployment. Unit “shot-exercises,” or mass inoculation sessions, usually become more frequent as corpsmen and medics rush to prepare servicemembers for diseases they may be exposed to, either naturally or as a biological attack, while in foreign countries.
Most inoculations run on a set schedule, so medical staffs attempt to stay ahead of the game, which wasn’t always the case, explained Senior Chief Petty Officer Aurora Ruckman, Navy senior enlisted leader, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
“Anyone that would be due (for a shot while in Iraq), we tried to take care of before the deployment,” the 39-year-old Chicago native said. “There are always things like anthrax that you can’t give early. You can give it later but never earlier.”
The anthrax vaccine is one of two important shots that were pushed for deployments to Iraq because of intelligence lead pointed to possible capabilities for biological attacks. However, medical staffs were ready to continue servicemembers’ normal shot schedules, said Lt. Cmdr. Sarah J. Arnold, MAG-16 flight surgeon.
“Our biggest concerns are anthrax and smallpox, but other than that, there are the usual shots,” the 34-year old from Meadowbrook, Pa. “Everyone should have had at least three Anthrax shots before coming into theater.”
“If they couldn’t get them all in the (United States), for whatever reason, we can give the vaccine in theater,” she continued. “It’s not as much of an issue.”
The anthrax vaccine was made a mandatory inoculation by the Department of Defense in 1997. According to an Armed Forces News Service press release in Dec. 2003, the a federal judge in Washington issued a court order Dec. 22, 2003 halting all Anthrax shots to servicemembers against their will by the Department of Defense.
The U.S. District court has lifted the order and Anthrax vaccinations resumed in January 2004.
There are many unfounded rumors surrounding both shots, but keeping servicemembers informed will belay some of the concerns, claimed Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony O. Semprun, hospital corpsman, MAG-16.
“The initial thought of getting smallpox is frightening to any Marine,” said the 37-year-old reserve corpsman. “ You have to have good rumor control. They have to listen to know what types of reactions are normal (after receiving the shot).”
“We try to put them at ease,” the Plano, Texas native added. “Education is the key.”
There has been much research on both vaccines, and it was only after this research was the decision reached to make the shots mandatory for servicemembers, Arnold said.
”There are no documented, long-term effects of either vaccine,” she assured. “Both have been around for quite some time and have been used in the non-military population as well. Threats were assessed and it was determined that these shots were necessary.”
Arnold continued that the body would react to the shots by showing small symptoms, such as inflammation or bruising of the forearm, signifying the human body’s immune system fighting the vaccine. This is normal, she explained, and is a sign that the body is producing the antibodies to fight the disease.
Semprun added that the medical personnel administering the vaccine would always give a brief explaining the normal progress of the shot’s effects and care procedures.
These briefs and the military’s posture on education concerning the vaccines have alleviated some fears servicemembers have for both vaccines. Today, deploying and deployed servicemembers are getting the shot’s, and although some fears remain, they are discovering for themselves that the shots are not as bad as the rumors say, Pineda explained.
”I was scared because I thought it was going to be bad and I was expecting the worst,” he said about his recent smallpox vaccination during MAG-16’s Sept. 29 shot-exercise. “It was actually easier than any shot I’ve ever gotten in the Marine Corps.”
“I think it’s a good thing and it makes me more comfortable out here,” he continued. “We can be more efficient because we don’t have to worry about any diseases. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Semprun equated both diseases to the way an infantryman would view an enemy.
“It’s an unseen enemy,” he said. “We deal with being able to see the enemy. This is one that can be all around us, in our food or water. It’s unseen and that’s dangerous.”
He concluded that his feelings about receiving the various immunizations, even though sometimes briefly painful and annoying, are along the lines of the president of the Hair Club for Men, who was “not only the president, but also a client.”
“To protect against the potential danger of exposure, the military plays it safe and stands on the side of caution,” he said. “Every corpsman has to go through them, all of us had to. That gives me peace of mind as a health care provider and as a servicemember.”
More information about the Anthrax and Smallpox vaccines can be gained by visiting the local aid stations or logging onto the website for the Center for Disease Control at WWW.CDC.GOV.