HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Ken Cobb was drafted into the Army during the height of the Vietnam War. Instead of fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, the Seventh-day Adventist member volunteered as a human guinea pig in a top-secret biological weapons program.
He was one of a select group of soldiers who volunteered from 1954 to 1973 to expose themselves to deadly viruses and bacteria as human guinea pigs. The Army used the soldiers to test vaccines and equipment against biological weapons and diseases and to develop treatments for these diseases. All of the volunteers were members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
A native of upstate New York, Cobb was drafted into the Army in 1969 a week after his final exam at Andrews University in Berrin Springs, Mich.
"I was raised Seventh-day Adventist," he said. "So I was sent to noncombat training as a conscientious objector at Fort Sam Houston and later to advanced individual training for medical corpsmen.
"We are not pacifists," the 58-year-old Cobb said. "We are supportive of our government, but we must not kill people. We received no rifle training. We believe in a medical role we can serve well, helping people out in a time of war."
Seventh-day Adventist medical corpsmen do not shoot back if shot at, Cobb said.
"We carry no weapon to shoot back with," he said.
During his training, an officer was sent from Fort Detrick, Md., to talk to the soldiers about Operation Whitecoat.
"They interviewed people who volunteered to be interviewed and I was among a select group of people who were transferred to the Whitecoat program," Cobb said.
Instead of fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese during the war, Cobb and other soldiers were sent to fight dangerous viruses and bacteria.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Army launched a top-secret effort at Fort Detrick, Md., to defend U.S. troops and the population from infectious and chemical weapons.
In 1954, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Army approached leaders of the
Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose members adhere to a strict health code with no drinking or smoking, with the Operation Whitecoat proposal.
The Army proposed to use Adventist draftees as volunteers for human trials of defensive vaccines and antibacterial medicines. Leaders of the church endorsed the proposal.
Cobb was selected in 1969 to enter the program. His new base was Walter Reed Army Hospital.
"It was better than being on the front lines in Vietnam," Cobb said. "D.C. was a better choice than Vietnam."
Other volunteers were sent to Fort Detrick, Md. The soldiers were expected to work as soldiers when not part of a test project. Part of the interview process for acceptance into the program was a background check on skills and training.
"Out of an 18-month period, I spent two to three weeks in a test project," Cobb said. "I had other jobs to do. The Army selected people who could also fill needed positions at the bases."
Cobb, who had a major in industrial education and a minor in construction, worked in the building management area as a soldier.
"I worked for a civilian who needed a manager for the research building," he said. Other soldiers worked in graphics or with the animals used in research.
"This was truly a volunteer process," Cobb said. "If you didn't want to volunteer for a project, you could get out of it. About 99 percent did participate in a project of some kind."
Cobb took part in a project called "Behavioral Effects of Infectious Diseases - A Human Factors Research Program Designed To Study Operator Performance During Periods of Health and Illness."
Some of the volunteers were injected with a type of European flu virus, Cobb said.
"We start off healthy, then given a virus and tested throughout the illness," he said. "Then after recovery they continue testing to see if we came back to full strength. I happened to be in the control group, so I never got sick."
But Cobb did not know he was a part of the control group until he never got sick.
"Some of the people got very, very sick and couldn't perform," he said. "Others got mildly sick and continued to perform. It was the only study they asked me to participate in. Some people did two projects, but most only did one project."
Cobb said the Army has conducted follow-up studies and that there is no documented evidence nor statistics that incidents of cancer or other side effects are any worse among the participants than in the general population, he said.
According to an article in the "Adventist Review" of Sept. 24, 1998, major research projects during the 19-year span of Operation Whitecoat included human trials of vaccines and antibiotics for diseases such as:
- Queensland fever - an acute airborne infectious disease common in agricultural areas that incapacitates the victim for two to four weeks. Operation Whitecoat research developed an effective vaccine.
- Tularemia - highly virulent microbe common to Northern Hemisphere that produces symptoms ranging from low-grade fever to swollen lymph nodes to fatal infections.
Vaccines developed during the program resulted in control of the disease and decreased mortality.
- Viral encephalitis, sandfly fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Rift Valley fever, typhus and typhoid fever.
- Tested and compared gas masks, isolation suits (later used for space exploration), effects of sleep deprivation, etc.
Records from Operation Whitecoat state that no volunteer died during the program, nor has there been documented permanent health damage to any participant.
"I served two years as a draftee," Cobb said. "The majority of soldiers at the time went to Vietnam. I was lucky to be selected, and they obtained a tremendous amount of information from the program."
Operation Whitecoat ended in 1973, soon after Cobb's participation. Efforts to locate and communicate with Operation Whitecoat veterans are ongoing and several reunions have been held.
"I'm not aware of anybody who didn't recover from what they got," Cobb said. "We knew bullets could kill, but no one was ever killed from this."
The volunteers have received certificates of appreciation from Congress and an Operation Whitecoat medallion for each participant from the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has also given medals to the participants.
Approximately 2,300 Seventh-day Adventist Army veterans served as Whitecoat volunteers.
"The effects of the program have been felt from the remote jungles of Latin America to the desert sands of the Middle East to the reaches of outer space," said doctors in the book "For God and Country; Operation Whitecoat: 1954-1973."
After serving the required period in the Army, Cobb returned to Andrews University to work in the plant services department in the same type job he had while in the Army.
He later worked as director of the physical plant facilities in the health care industry.
"About 14 years ago, I had the opportunity to come to Park Ridge Hospital, part of the Adventist health system, and I took it," he said.
Cobb and his wife have two children who attended Fletcher Academy. He is the director of engineering services at Park Ridge Hospital
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