A Boot-Camp Disease That Won’t Go Away

I attended Navy Boot-camp in San Diego back in 1961. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) was fully in effect (thank God), even though many Chiefs still remembered fondly the bygone days of “rocks and shoals,” as they called pre-UCMJ military discipline.

For a lad who had been raised by missionary parents in the war-torn aftermath of Germany in the 1950s, boot camp came as quite a shock. Perhaps the sense of discipline my German school teachers instilled in me helped me survive boot camp life; and maybe the sense of self-worth my parents made sure I retained despite the sometimes awful desolation that surrounded my youth helped me to overcome boot camp’s unexpected “harshness.”

In any case, I look back on that experience with a great deal of fondness – except for one matter. Many of my fellow recruits became seriously ill, afflicted by a strange, persistent, flu-like virus. It seemed to lurk in the barracks, especially in the semi-isolated buildings we occupied during our first four weeks of training. We called it the “Barracks Crud.”

The docs said it was an adenovirus, and we recruits believed it was simply part of the toughening-up process to which we were being subjected. At lease one in ten of us came down with the flu-like symptoms that put us in a welcome berth in sick bay for some anticipated R&R. The bad news was that getting this bug inevitably set the recruit back a couple of weeks, into another company – we lost two of our guys that way. It didn’t seem like a big deal, since we also lost a guy with a broken leg, two “dropped out,” and one went AWOL. Of course, “dropped out” was different than in school, and meant some “discipline” followed by reinsertion in the training process downstream. We never heard from our over-the-fence shipmate again, and presumed he went to the brig, and then back to civilian life in disgrace.

The adenovirus outbreak swept through boot camp like a plague, and from our lowly recruit-perspective, it gave us something to talk about during the rare moments of unorganized free time. Rumor had it that two guys actually died. Everyone knew someone who had talked to someone who had the straight skinny.

It was, therefore, with great interest that I read a recent report in The Seattle Times about a “major screw-Up” concerning a boot camp virus running rampant today. The grist of the report was that a persistent adenovirus outbreak in military boot camps was afflicting one in ten recruits, and that nationwide several had died during the last two years. Furthermore, according to the Times, the Pentagon had screwed up (again), in that there was insufficient vaccine to prevent the spread of the illness.

The Times reported that a “staggering” 2,500 recruits were contracting the illness each month, and that military officials were scrambling to protect their own anatomical hinter parts as well as their careers.

It appears that the problem I experienced as a youth in the San Diego boot camp was the tip if an iceberg that culminated in development and distribution of an effective oral vaccine in the early 1970s by Wyeth Laboratories. By the mid-1980s the epidemic, which was largely contained within the military recruit training establishment, was under control. Wyeth’s outdated productions facilities had reached the end of their useful life cycle, and the Pentagon was unwilling to underwrite the construction of a new production facility for the vaccine.

Besides, nobody was getting sick anymore.

By the mid-1990s, available stocks of the oral vaccine were completely depleted, and (surprise), recruits started getting sick again. Finally, in September 2001, defense officials agreed to spend $35.4 million to develop a new vaccine through Barr Laboratories of Forest, Va. Largely through the efforts of Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, the new vaccine will be available to recruits by 2006, which is three years earlier than this process would normally take.

There is much room for finger-pointing, but the bottom line appears to be that the Pentagon’s Napoleonic bureaucracy is as much to blame as anybody in this fiasco of missed opportunities and stupid decisions. Fortunately, effective hygiene and early detection can play a significant role in limiting the problem until the new vaccine is available, and recruit commands are (finally) completely aware of the seriousness of the problem.

The new U.S. military envisioned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as described by Navy Secretary Gordon England at a recent Naval Institute conference, will be far better equipped to handle these kinds of problems. They intend to eliminate much of the bureaucratic layering that is a much to blame for the current adenovirus problem, as are the people who made stupid, self-serving decisions.

In the meantime, Winkenwerder and his colleagues are doing everything possible to keep recruits alive and healthy. Since the adenovirus that causes the illness is actually prevalent throughout the general population, the solutions developed by the military will benefit everyone in the long run.

Winkenwerder sees the problem in human terms, both for cause and solution. He is attacking the human side of the problem, making sure that effective preventative methods are in place now, while we await the vaccine itself. Rumsfeld and team are attacking the bureaucratic side of the problem, so that in the future, a streamlined system will put front-line physicians in direct contact with military and civilian resources that can supply immediate help.

Perhaps, finally, tomorrow’s recruits will only know about the “barracks crud” from sea-stories told around the scuttlebutt.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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