NEWS FEATURE: Adventist `Whitecoats,’ Volunteers for Military Experiments, Hold Reunion

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c. 2003 Religion News Service

FREDERICK, Md. _ Ivan Belko still remembers how he willingly inhaled Q fever, a biological agent that was the focus of a military experiment he volunteered for in the 1950s.

“I was one of the ones that got pretty sick,” recalled the 69-year-old who participated in “Operation Whitecoat,” a special arrangement between the U.S. Army and conscientious objectors from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose members believe they should not be involved in combat.

“I had a very bad headache, probably about as worse as I’ve ever had in my life.”

Belko, a retired medical technologist, traveled from Modesto, Calif., to join about 150 other Whitecoat veterans at the “For God and Country” reunion weekend that marked the 30th anniversary of the end of the operation. Recalling sickness and sacrifice at a time when bioterrorism has become a household word, many of the veterans who gathered Oct. 3-5 said they would do it again.

They represent a total of about 2,300 volunteers, 80 percent of whom participated in at least one experiment involving biological agents or potential vaccines and 20 percent of whom worked in positions such as clerks and technicians. Most of the experiments were conducted at Fort Detrick on the edge of this northcentral Maryland city.

After a vespers service where they sang “Marching to Zion” and received praise from political, military and church leaders, dozens of men formed two lines that snaked up the aisles of Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church toward two microphones.

Many proudly wore two medallions threaded with red, white and blue ribbons that were presented to them from the church and the military at a 1998 reunion that drew 250 men and their families.

They waited patiently to introduce themselves to their unique group of peers, recounting their years of service, their later occupations and _ in some cases _ their still-memorized military identification numbers. The men also recalled the hospitality of the church members, who took them home after weekly Sabbath services for meals away from the military mess hall and afternoons of games and music.

“I can’t say I wasn’t scared,” said Bob Swartz of Greencastle, Pa., a retired chainsaw salesman who served from 1954-56.

“I just praise the Lord that no one has died as a result of the experiments.”

Military and church officials emphasize that no deaths resulted from the operation that began in 1954 and ended in 1973.

“No adverse impact on the overall health of Operation Whitecoat volunteers could be conclusively attributed to participation in research studies at Fort Detrick,” reads the conclusion of a survey, based on questionnaires returned to the Army between 1998 and 2002.

The study results were unveiled during the reunion weekend.

On both sides, people familiar with the operation say, there were benefits. The military had a rather homogeneous test group of men who, according to the dictates of their religion, didn’t drink or smoke. The church, had members who were conscientious objectors and who wanted to be able to observe their Sabbath with Saturday worship services.

“It is the attitude of Seventh-day Adventists that any service rendered voluntarily by whomsoever in the useful necessary research into the cause and the treatment of disabling disease is a legitimate and laudable contribution to the successes of our nation and to the health and comfort of our fellow men,” reads a statement signed by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists that endorsed the start of the operation.

Tests included exposure to diseases such as tularemia and sandfly fever as well as experimental vaccines for illnesses such as plague, yellow fever and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.

Some of the disease tests involved breathing through a face mask attached to a 1-million liter, stainless-steel sphere known as the “Eight Ball” at the fort. Other volunteers were injected with the substances that were being tested.

The “Whitecoats” would be treated with antibiotics and kept isolated during their recovery period while researchers learned about the process of airborne infection and the effectiveness of vaccines and drug treatments.

“It was probably like the worst case of flu you ever had in your life,” recalled Wendell Cole, 73, who breathed in Q fever in 1955. “Your bones ached, temperature got to about 103.5. … If the Russians were to come I would have said, `Take me.’ I had no fight.”

Cole, like others interviewed, cited a range of reasons for participation in the unusual project, from avoiding being sent overseas to matters of the heart.

“My wife-to-be, it turned out, … had rejected me and she was in Washington, D.C.,” said Cole of Berrien Springs, Mich. “I thought, well, maybe I can get close to her again and change her mind.”

The plan of the now-retired window cleaner worked and he’s been married for 48 years.

Whatever their reasons, the agreement to participate led to some excruciating moments.

“Some of the guys said at first you were afraid you were going to die and then you were afraid you weren’t,” said retired U.S. Army Chaplain (Col.) Richard Stenbakken, chairman of the Whitecoat Foundation and director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries.

Ethicists inside and outside the military say the studies met extremely high standards.

Col. Arthur Anderson, chief of the office of human use and ethics at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, said the projects rarely led to long-term health problems.

“I think there was one person that may have long-term disabilities _ just one out of 2,300,” said Anderson, who is based at Fort Detrick.

The USARMIID, as it’s known, keeps an archive of records of participants and, when contacted, can provide information to inquiring project volunteers.

In a post-Sept. 11 environment, Anderson said, the operation’s decades-old lessons in dealing with future bioterrorism are being applied now.

“The experiments that were done to determine how infectious disease organisms in an aerosol suspension could infect a human being (were) so critically important to understand how to protect against the anthrax mailbombing that took place,” said Anderson.

They’ve also helped with medical advances ranging from providing a vaccine for an Egyptian outbreak of Rift Valley fever to the development of spacesuits that protect wearers from infectious agents, he said.

Jonathan Moreno, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia, said the operation was “very ethical” for its time.

“By the standards of the day, it was exemplary,” said Moreno, whose center is in Charlottesville, Va.

He said the reunion in and of itself is “an interesting testimony” to the success of Operation Whitecoat.

“So many of them are feeling favorable about this project that they come back for reunions,” he said. “I’ve spoken to one or two of them who, in retrospect … are not happy but they don’t seem to be by any means … the majority.”

 

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