August/September 2007

By Ramona du Houx

When Maine Army National Guard Capt. Patrick Damon died of undetermined causes in June 2006 in Afghanistan, a shock wave consumed the Statehouse. Damon was a dedicated public servant and had worked in the Capitol for ten years, during which he became chief of staff to a speaker of the house before taking a job in the administration at the Public Utilities Commission. Damon was known as “a tireless public servant who built a legacy of looking out for the people who couldn’t look out for themselves,” said Governor Baldacci. Damon, 41, had two young children.

His family and friends were prepared, as much as they could be, to hear that he had given his life in combat. But the media reports which said that he died of a heart attack and the military saying he died from “undetermined causes” left his death surrounded in mystery. His mother, Barbara Damon-Day, started asking questions and searching for solutions.

“I became a woman with a mission,” said Damon-Day. “Anyone who knew my son understood that he was a healthy, young, family man.”

After researching what happened, Damon-Day thinks extensive immunizations were the major factor in her son’s death.

“Shortly after Pat received his deployment orders, he was given vaccinations, and that is when the trouble began,” said Damon-Day. “He began to have strange swelling that was visible even in photos he sent home, and other severe symptoms that should have been recognized as an adverse reaction and a serious health issue. I have come to accept that we will never know exactly why Pat died, but I believe that his death was a reaction to those vaccines. If anything can be gained from this tragic loss, I hope it is that we pass this law to put in place safety measures and reviews that will protect the health of those still serving and offer our families an independent source of information and a place to turn.”

“When the Maine National Guard is deployed, these citizen soldiers of Maine require a high level of certainty that the medications they receive will not put them in jeopardy and that they will receive the best preventative medical care available,” said Speaker of the House Glen Cummings. “Their jobs are dangerous enough without being subjected to further peril by the very medications meant to protect them.”

In most branches of the military, soldiers are herded through lines and immunized before going into combat. It’s rare that medical charts are checked and many military personnel end up receiving shots for immunizations that they already had. When anthrax immunizations were introduced, some military personnel started to complain about dizziness, and there were deaths attributed to unexplained blood clots.

“It’s not the first time this has happened to our military,” said Gary Lawyerson of the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee. Many Veterans from the First Gulf War are still suffering from the effects the vaccinations had upon them, though the official military position doesn’t acknowledge their illnesses are due to the shots.

“It knocked me off my feet,” said Lawyerson, a Marine, referring to when he was given a vaccine for anthrax before the First Gulf War. “The shots they gave us were supposed to help protect us, but for many of us they had the opposite effect. I think this proposed legislation is a home run. We’ve suffered too long. We were only serving our country.”

The legislation was the governor’s bill, sponsored by more than 155 members of the Maine House and Senate. It passed with unanimous support.

The bill was introduced because Damon-Day kept on fighting for her son, serving her state and country.

“I am looking for something positive to come out of my son’s death,” said Damon-Day. “Soldiers are far more likely to die in a non-combat incident. Death from preventable illnesses needs to be looked at, and I think a partnership between the Maine CDC and the Guard is the best way to proceed.”

“When this country sends its men and women into harm’s way, we have a moral obligation to make sure we take care of them, not only when they are in combat, but also when they come home. We can tolerate nothing less,” said Governor Baldacci. “It was a tragedy almost a year ago that started us down the path toward today. But it is not tragedy or sadness that keeps us going and keeps us working. Instead, it is hope that we can — all of us — come together and find the answers to make things better.”

The new law creates a nine-member commission to review all preventive health treatment practices and protocols, vaccinations, and other medications administered to members of the Maine National Guard. Working with the state Department of Defense and Veterans Services and the Maine Center for Disease Control, the commission would propose recommendations for safer healthcare practices and medications to the U.S. military. The panel also would assist families with members who have died or been wounded while in the National Guard. The commission would include at least one physician, a veteran who has served in a war zone, a pharmacist, a person with a military-related disability, and a psychologist.

“Here in Maine, we take care of our people. And that’s what this bill is all about,” said Baldacci.

“I really believe this law will get something changed in Washington. Again Maine will lead the way,” said Damon-Day. Shortly thereafter, she met with Congressman Tom Allen and inspired him to sponsor an amendment calling for better medical screening of military personnel, which was attached to a federal defense-spending bill.

“Vaccinations are intended to protect our armed forces from disease, but there are real concerns about serious potential harm that may result from multiple vaccinations given to troops at one time,” said Representative Allen.

Allen’s amendment is based on the governor’s legislation and directs the U.S. Defense Department to assess policies governing vaccinations given to military personnel and to study whether multiple vaccinations in a 24-hour period are safe and effective.

“Today was a good day,” said Damon-Day, after the press conference in Augusta. “Sometimes when I’m gardening, I think I can hear him tell me I’ve done well. He keeps me going.”