October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

Marine L. Cpl. Michael Metzig had never before disobeyed an order. But standing in line Feb. 28 at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, his stomach tensed as he awaited his turn to be vaccinated. First one Marine refused the shot, then another. Then Metzig himself, his heart racing, stepped out of line. “Rumors about health problems with the vaccine were flying through the barracks,” says Metzig. “I heard it could make you sterile or you could get cancer.”

Four Marines defied their superiors that day, bringing to about 200 the number of military personnel who have refused the anthrax vaccine required by the armed forces as a defense against biological warfare. Like the others, Metzig, 20, suffered quick and harsh punishment. An MP-in-training who had hoped to join a police SWAT team after the service, he was court-martialed on June 21. Found guilty of disobeying an order, he was busted to private, forced to give up two-thirds of his pay, sentenced to 30 days in the brig and discharged for bad conduct.

His career hopes dashed because police departments do not accept GIs with dishonorable discharges, he saw his father turn on him. “We argued, voices were raised,” says Metzig, adding that his father took away the keys to a truck he had cosigned for. Dismissing his son’s concerns over the vaccine, Comdr. Dave Metzig, 43, with more than 20 years’ service in the Navy, would not comment to PEOPLE except to say that his son “made a bad decision.”

Certainly Pentagon brass thought so. Early last year. Defense Secretary William Cohen, saying biological warfare is a continuing threat, ordered that all military personnel receive the vaccine, which has been approved by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control. Responding to critics who suggest that the vaccine be voluntary, Cohen replied, “Wearing helmets in battle isn’t voluntary, because everybody needs protection. The same is true of anthrax.”

Still, the $130 million program has come under fire. After more than 1 million vaccinations, the military has received reports of only 243 adverse reactions, including swelling and rashes. But the U.S. General Accounting Office says that as many as 90 percent of troops may be experiencing at least mild reactions and urged further study. Meryl Nass, 48, a Maine internist who has studied anthrax for a decade, is one of several researchers looking into possible links between Gulf War syndrome, whose symptoms resemble bad reactions to the shot, and the anthrax vaccine given troops in that conflict. “In my opinion,” says Nass, “we are doing to our people what Saddam Hussein could not do.”

The debate gives little comfort to Metzig, whose life has been spent in and around the armed forces. He was born on a base in the Philippines, where his father had met and married Novi Catambis, now 40. The family settled in Paradise Hills outside San Diego when Metzig, the oldest of three children—sister Michelle is 16; brother Carl, 7—was 8. During his senior year in high school, he decided to follow his father into the military.

It was also in high school that he met fiancée Crystal Gurule, now 20 and in college, whose family offered a friendly refuge when Metzig first returned home from the brig. “He would go out with me and my family to dinner and the movies,” she says. “This is the first time he has ever stood up to his father. ” Father and son are speaking now—though not about the vaccine incident. His mother says simply, “He is still our son. We support him.”

Law enforcement no longer an option, Metzig works at a department store while attending Southwestern Community College in hopes of becoming a paramedic. Though forced to change plans, he is not bitter. “I hope they stop this crazi-ness or at least give people the choice,” he says. “I was prepared to take a bullet for my country, but I didn’t sign up to get bacteria shot in my arm.”

Nick Charles

Vicki Sheff-Cahan in San Diego and Kate McKenna in Washington, D.C.

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