Gary Batten, a 22-year-old who once hoped to follow the military career of his father, signed up for the Navy two months ago. He underwent a physical exam and was certified as fit to become a seaman recruit. In mid-October, he took the oath of service, flew to the Great Lakes Recruit Training Center about an hour north of Chicago and went through another battery of tests.
Then, unlike the other men in his company, he was ordered to undergo another blood test.
"I asked why and they said: 'At this point, we don't need to tell you,' " Batten remembered. "Three days later, they called me in and said: 'You're carrying the AIDS antibody. You can call your parents. You are being taken out of your company and sent to medical receiving.' Just like that. Boom."
Tests showed that Batten's body had produced antibodies to the virus that is the primary cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is a fatal disease transmitted by sexual contact, blood transfusions or hypodermic needles that destroys the body's ability to fight other diseases. Batten had, at some time, been exposed to the virus.
Those test results were not telling Batten that he necessarily will contract AIDS. Research has indicated that only 5 percent to 20 percent of those who have been exposed to the virus eventually develop the disease. What the diagnosis was telling Batten -- and four other Navy recruits who have been found to be antibody carriers and who were interviewed for this story -- was that his military career was over.
"They're just using our bodies to gain medical knowledge," said one 24-year-old who, since his diagnosis, has undergone test after test for the last month at Bethesda Naval Hospital. "And then they'll throw us out."
Batten and his Navy peers are not alone in their misery or in their confusion over military policy. The blood test they received is now given to the 25,000 recruits who come into the military services each month. Five Navy recruits in San Diego filed suit last week in U.S. District Court to obtain a temporary restraining order to prevent their dismissal because they, too, had a positive reaction to the tests.
The restraining order was denied, but the Navy acknowledged it violated its own procedures by trying to discharge the seamen without written notification or military counsel and agreed to follow its own rules.
Batten and the other recruits undergoing such tests at Bethesda hospital tell stories of fear, resentment, anger and a sense of helplessness in a system that, in a few short weeks, has made them pariahs among their friends and family.
They said they have had little counseling, no written information about the disease, no one to advise them whether they have any legal rights to stay in the service. A program on commercial television last week, "An Early Frost," was the best bit of information any of them have had about the quirks of the as-yet-incurable disease, they say.
"We hear the whispers to the other corpsmen, [Navy Medical Corps aides] the other nurses. We've had no confidentiality about this," Batten said. "They keep telling us the only way you get this is by either being a drug user or a homosexual. I've told them I'm neither. And the more you say, no, you're not, the more they ask the same question over and over."
A Navy spokesman in Washington said Friday that "it is Navy policy to provide clinical, psychological and spiritual support" as well as written information to persons who are found to carry the AIDS antibody. "All testing and its implications are discussed in detail at Bethesda," Navy spokesman Lt. Stephen Pietropaoli said.
If the allegations raised by the recruits at Bethesda are true, Pietropaoli said, "they would have represented isolated incidents contrary to hospital policy and procedures."
The military has maintained that the blood tests are designedombat a serious health problem that could be passed on through blood transfusions during combat. Critics of the testing program have said that the screening is designed to harass male homosexuals into leaving the armed services.
In late August, the Department of Defense ordered that all recruits for the armed services undergo blood tests to determine if they have been exposed to the AIDS virus. Recruits who test positive are barred from service, Defense Department officials said, but receive counseling.
All military processing stations were to begin testing recruits no later than Oct. 1. Defense Department spokesmen said this week, however, that testing began at the recruit training centers Oct. 1 and at the military processing stations by Oct. 15.
Later in October, the Defense Department announced all active duty military personnel would undergo similar tests. Those with positive reactions would not be dismissed, but would be put on limited duty, receive counseling and be monitored for further signs.
The seaman recruits now being tested at Bethesda, all of whom were approved for duty initially from their home towns in Louisiana, Kansas, Florida and New York, were determined to be carrying the antibodies during their first week or two of training at Great Lakes.
Each found out about the results a day or two after a second blood test. Each said he was told virtually nothing about the disease. When they called their families, there were shock, tears and fright on both sides. Some received encouragement. Some don't know now if they have a home to return to.
"I have a family back in Kansas," said a 30-year-old father of two who requested anonymity. "I've talked to my wife and I don't know where we stand. I could tell from the tone of her voice that there's something there. I know her. And I know it is taking a terrible toll . . . . I love my wife. I really don't blame her for her reaction . . . . This is deep, it's really deep."
"When you hear, there is just you and this disease," said another, 21 years old, from Houma, La. "That's all you think about . . . . There's a lot of talk about suicide. Lots of sleepless nights. In the barracks, the first few weeks, you could hear people screaming at night."
Unlike persons who have been found to have AIDS, persons determined to be carrying the antibodies known as HTLV III don't have signs of illness. But they live with the stigma of all that the disease can mean.
"Everybody is rude. People are afraid to touch us. They are afraid of being with us. They're afraid of getting AIDS. And we aren't even diagnosed as having it," Batten said.
Batten said he asked doctors at Bethesda what he should say when someone asks him why he left the service. The doctors, he said, tried to be helpful. "They said that if people asked we should say we had hepatitis. They said people would be afraid of us if they knew what we really had."