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EXCLUSIVE
Soldier disabled by anthrax vaccine is recalled to serve

He served his country as an ideal soldier and became a disabled veteran along the way. So what is the Army doing calling him back – just days before his term of service expires?

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By Jesse Kanson-Benanav | RAW STORY MANAGING EDITOR

Jason Cordova was an ideal military recruit. In 1993, the Buffalo, NY native enrolled at Canisius College, a Jesuit institution with a strong Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program that feeds the U.S. Army officers in the Buffalo area. He studied military communications, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Upon his graduation in 1997, Cordova was upgraded to a Communications Commander with the Army Special Forces and sent to serve active duty at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

It was there that Cordova’s military career took a turn for the worse. After a two-year review in 1998, Defense Secretary William Cohen announced the implementation of an Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program for all active duty military personnel. As an active duty officer, Cordova was among the 455,000 soldiers who received the inoculation. Yet despite assurances as to the safety of the anthrax vaccine, these shots were anything but routine.

Soon after the first five of the required six injections were administered, he began experiencing excruciating physical ailments.

“There are times when I am just urinating,” says Commander Cordova with a matter-of-fact attitude, “and all of the sudden a thick fluid will come out, my testicles will be swollen, enlarged and very tender. Then the anthrax injection site in my waist becomes inflamed.”

According to Cordova, infectious disease doctors speculate that the vaccination may have entered his lymphatic system—primarily affecting nodes in his groin.

“When an episode occurs, and it does about two to three times per week, the pain becomes so unbearable I can’t even walk,” the commander told RAW STORY. “I just have to lay down with my legs spread open. It’s just awful.”

After completing nine years of active service, Cordova applied to the Veterans Administration for disability benefits in 2002. Citing his symptoms and linking them directly to the anthrax vaccine, the VA granted him a 10 percent benefit. This status means he is officially a disabled veteran.

Despite his service-related disability, Cordova received notice from the Army in June 2004 that he would soon be called back to duty for Operation Enduring Freedom, one of nearly 10,000 servicemembers who were recalled after successfully completing their active duty requirements. He has been assigned to report for active duty on May 1.

His ultimate destination? Afghanistan or Iraq.

To add “insult to injury,” as Cordova explains it, his initial commitment to the Army expires just 13 days later, on May 14. “They’re legally allowed to do that, they say,” he claims, “but I never saw the fine print which says that’s okay.”

“It seems like a breach of contract to me,” he adds.

Cordova seeks an exemption

Earlier this year, Cordova, who now lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, applied for an exemption from continued service, citing his VA status as a disabled veteran and his inability to receive further anthrax inoculation despite being sent to a high-risk zone.

To make his case to the Army, Cordova submitted a slew of documents, including memos from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. Both memos were originally distributed to announce the reconstitution of the anthrax vaccination for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan after the original program was halted due to shortages in 2000. The program has since been placed in limbo after a court ruled that the vaccines were not properly approved for use. Many have questioned the safety and efficacy of the vaccine; RAW STORY profiled four servicemembers disabled by the inoculations last October.

Next the commander dispatched letters from six different doctors, including a VA doctor, an Army doctor and a physician from Penn State University. All confirm the ailments Cordova continues to experience and insist he must not receive another anthrax shot. One goes so far as to say it could be life-threatening.

Finally, Cordova sent the Army documentation from the Veterans Administration which establishes the disability and links it directly to his prior military service.

“I had all the bases covered,” he insists.

Cordova claims he would be at a disadvantage as compared to other soldiers who had received the vaccinations.

He notes, however, that his main concern is the safety of those around him. Because of his physical condition, Cordova sees himself as “putting lives in danger.”

“I’m an officer, a commander—I’m in charge,” the Pennsylvanian explains. “If my soldiers are forced to tend to me rather than to the enemy, I put lives in jeopardy.”

“That’s the exact opposite of what officers are supposed to do,” he adds.

Cordova’s request for exemption was denied. On Mar. 21, he received a simple letter that read, “I cannot grant you an exemption from this operation at this time. Report May 1, 2005.”

“That’s it,” Cordova cries. “There’s no regulation, nothing. I have no faith that a board even convened to look at it. I don’t know if there was a doctor on the board; were they qualified? Did they take minutes at the meeting, if there even was one?”

The Army granted Cordova 14 days to file an appeal. But without any specifics regarding the Army’s refusal, Cordova had no grounds upon which to file.

“They’re asking me in the appeal to answer something in the particular when they only gave me an answer in the abstract,” he says.

Cordova’s appeal was subsequently denied.

Because of the way his situation was handled, the commander now intends to seek a federal injunction against the Army based on what he alleges are “due process violations.”

“Because the Army has never given a reason why they declined [the exemption],” he says, “they have violated my right to due process; in essence the appeal I filed is inequitable from the start.”

“The guy who killed that poor girl down in Florida a few weeks back gets due process, but I’m a disabled veteran and I can’t,” he adds. “Something’s not right here.”

Cordova hopes to file the injunction by early next week. The Army did not respond to requests for comment.

Lawmakers won't step in

In addition to pursuing an exemption through official military procedures, Cordova has also sought help from his elected representatives. This, he says, proved to be equally frustrating and fruitless.

“So far I’ve contacted Sen. Arlen Specter, Sen. Rick Santorum, and Congressman Todd Platts,” explains the Harrisburg, PA resident. Each office agreed to look into his case, he says, but he’s heard little.

Cordova reserved his harshest words for the senior senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter. Specter, who Cordova notes is a former chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, recently contacted him to say they had exhausted all their resources.

The call came from Gayle Mills, Executive Director in Specter’s Harrisburg office. Commander Cordova claims she made “outrageous” remarks.

“She said I should take three Cipro pills and show up for the physical,” says a frustrated Cordova. “That’s all they had to do when the Senate building had the anthrax scare.”

“She tried to liken her experience being at the Hart Senate Building to me being sent over to Iraq or Afghanistan with a significant threat of anthrax,” Cordova says.

“I don’t think Al Qaeda is going to send me a letter, an envelope,” he quips. “It’s going to be a little bigger, know what I mean?”

Cordova asserts that Mills told him that because he had received five of the six required anthrax vaccine injections, he was safe, and his concern about being at a disadvantage as compared to other soldiers was unfounded. This information is in direct contrast to Department of Defense regulations, according to a memo issued by the Assistant Secretary of Defense’s office on Sept. 11, 1998. It claims:

“Full immunization with Anthrax Vaccine...requires six doses administered over 18 months to complete the primary series…Yearly boosters are administered thereafter to maintain immunity.”

“This leads me to believe they never even looked into it,” Cordova says. “Senator Specter has turned his back on a disabled vet.”

Mills refused to comment to RAW STORY on the particulars of Cordova’s case, saying only, “According to the Army a lot of military [members] are called into services with 10 percent to 60 percent disability. A lot goes into that decision.”

Cordova says that both Sen. Santorum and Rep. Platts have launched congressional inquiries. “Hopefully they’re able to demonstrate a bit more leadership than Sen. Specter,” he says. Neither office responded to requests for comment.

With the days dwindling closer to his reactivation date, the soldier’s frustration is palpable.

“I’ve kind of exhausted my resources,” he says. “I just want one of these guys to stand up and do the right thing.”

“You know,” he continues, “I see everyone getting involved with Terri Schiavo down in Florida. Let’s see a disabled veteran get taken care of right here in your own state. In your own backyard.”

Cordova is clearly vexed with the Army, an institution that he had dedicated nine years of his life to.

“They just see me as a warm body,” he says. “I have a heartbeat and that’s good enough for them.”

The self-proclaimed Bush supporter adds: “Let’s face it. This is what John Kerry called the backdoor draft. I’m exactly it. Being involuntarily called back from the inactive ready-reserve.”

For now, Cordova seems resigned to his possible fate. If no intervention occurs, the commander plans to report to Fort Jackson, South Carolina as directed for in-processing on May 1 to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, as directed.

As for his expectations for the battlefield: “I’m at a disadvantage; they can not protect me properly,” says Cordova.

“I’m at an unlevel playing-field for survival.”

Originally published Apr. 4, 2005.

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