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Soldier-turned-political activist is discharged from Army after declining immunizations

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A 10th Mountain Division soldier who became a political activist during his court-martial has been honorably discharged from the Army after refusing to take the flu and anthrax vaccines.

Sean P. Niemi, a medic stationed at Fort Drum with two tours of duty overseas, said he was merely exercising his religious rights.

“I didn’t see much of a point of injecting a bunch of poison into myself or my soldiers for no guaranteed effect,” said Mr. Niemi, who is home in Tennessee after receiving his discharge notice in March from the upper echelons of the Defense Department.

Mr. Niemi’s yearlong court-martial process was punctuated by offers and counteroffers from prosecutors and also featured political protests from Mr. Niemi and his family. Mr. Niemi demonstrated in front of the Watertown office of Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, earlier this year, because of Mr. Owens’s vote for a defense authorization act that Mr. Niemi thought would infringe upon civil liberties. Mr. Niemi also protested the presence of President Barack Obama when the commander in chief came to Fort Drum last year.

His refusal to take the shots reflects unease among some Americans about vaccines, even as health professionals say that not taking vaccines puts the unvaccinated people and the rest of the population at risk.

The Army’s policy is clear, according to a statement from a Pentagon spokeswoman: All soldiers must be immunized against influenza, and soldiers who are going to dangerous areas must be immunized against anthrax. Doing otherwise is considered disobeying a lawful order and can result in punishment, including dishonorable discharge, which would strip soldiers of post-service benefits.

“Our commanders are concerned with protecting their personnel and keeping them mission effective,” read a statement from the Office of the Army Surgeon General. “The intent of this immunization program is to protect the health and overall effectiveness of the command.”

And despite concerns among some Americans about vaccines, most health professionals and government officials discount concerns over the safety of vaccines, strongly recommending the protection that they offer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s immunization website features anecdotes from influenza pandemics that could have been prevented by vaccinations.

Mr. Niemi, a specialist who had seven years in the Army when he got out, had a twofold objection to vaccines: religious and medical.

He said that when he got married, his wife introduced him to a New Jersey church called Abunda Life, a nondenominational sect that is against vaccines.

The church’s pastor, Mr. Niemi said, “firmly believes that only through God’s natural healing and through the things God gives us in nature can we truly be healed.”

In 2008 or 2009, in the midst of the swine-flu epidemic and while on a deployment to Afghanistan, Mr. Niemi started declining the flu vaccine. A combat medic, he also declined to administer the vaccine for fellow soldiers. He said the literature about the injections was insufficient. He persuaded other soldiers to decline the vaccine, too.

“We caught a little bit of hell about that from upper echelons of the command group,” Mr. Niemi said.

His disciplinary proceedings began in 2010, when he was preparing for a third deployment. Before the deployment, he had to take the flu vaccine and the anthrax vaccine, which he declined.

He sought a religious exemption from the medical platoon leader, then-1st Lt. David W. Draper, who turned it down.

Based on a conversation that Mr. Niemi had had with him, Mr. Draper concluded that his religious beliefs are “fickle or a matter of convenience.” Mr. Draper also said that Mr. Niemi’s church had been denied tax-exempt status — though Mr. Niemi contends that only the church’s building, and not the church, was denied that status.

Instead of submitting to punishments for refusing a superior’s order — which could have meant loss of rank and extra work — Mr. Niemi started court-martial proceedings. He was represented by a judge advocate general attorney and Patricia Finn, a Piermont attorney who specializes in anti-vaccination cases.

“They offered Sean a really crummy deal. He refused,” Ms. Finn said. “It was extraordinary.”

Eventually, a top deputy to the secretary of the Army, Thomas R. Lamont, signed paperwork that released Mr. Niemi from the Army before his contract was up because Mr. Niemi “has no conditions for service under conditions of full mobilization.” The discharge was deemed “honorable.”

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