Globe&Mail - Sick soldiers' treatment 'a disgrace'

JEFF SALLOT

Friday, December 17, 1999

Ottawa -- Hundreds of Canadian peacekeepers who went to Croatia healthy and came home sick have been treated disgracefully by their government, a military board of inquiry says.

"We were appalled to hear of the frustrations and humiliating treatment experienced by injured soldiers," the board said in a report released yesterday on the illnesses reported by about 300 soldiers who served in Croatia from 1993 to 1995.

Inquiry head Colonel Joe Sharpe said, "We don't take as good care of our soldiers as our airplanes."

Digestive disorders, headaches, joint pain, blurred vision, sleeplessness, jaundice, rashes and other symptoms, often related to stress, were too easily dismissed by government officials when deciding whether soldiers qualified for disability and pension benefits, the report says.

"The treatment received by many of the injured that came to our attention has been, at best, arbitrary and certainly inadequate. The situation faced by these soldiers is a disgrace and cannot be allowed to continue," the report says.

Defence officials said the report will be studied carefully, including a recommendation to allow soldiers to remain in the military if injury prevents them from going overseas on a mission. Current rules require everybody in uniform to be ready to go anywhere at any time.

Board members said they believe that, in addition to the 300 known cases, many more veterans of the Croatian mission may be hiding illnesses so they don't lose their jobs, and thus they are not getting medical treatment.

The board of inquiry, headed by Col. Sharpe, has all but ruled out soil contamination or other environmental hazards as the cause for the unexplained illnesses reported by peacekeepers. Some of the veterans suspected the red dirt they used to fill sandbags to protect their camps contained metals or other toxic substances.

However, Col. Sharpe told a news conference tests of soil samples found no dangerous substances.
More likely, the soldiers suffered ailments induced by the extreme stress they faced during combat conditions in Croatia, he said.

"This is not in their heads," he said. Nor are these illnesses signs of weakness. "These are not weak people." Rather, these are physical injuries that are "as real as a broken leg."

The 3,500 Canadian soldiers who served with the United Nations in Croatia faced combat conditions unknown to Canadians since the Korean War. They were often caught in crossfire between Serbs and Croats or came under direct attack themselves. The United Nations didn't provide adequate clean water, defensive stores or even surgeons. The Canadian soldiers witnessed horrible atrocities. "Nothing in their training could adequately prepare them for the sights and conditions they had to mentally endure," the report says.

Dr. Jeff Whitehead, a medical adviser to the board, said combat stress is a well-documented condition that often leads to physical ailments like those reported by the Canadians coming home from Croatia.

The Croatian deployment, and other peacekeeping missions since, "are creating a large and growing number of casualties. . . . With appropriate help, many can regain their health and continue their military careers, or move on to productive civilian lives," the report says.

The board urged officials in the Department of National Defence and the Department of Veterans Affairs to re-examine the disability claims of the former peacekeepers.

"When military members leave Canada healthy and return injured, they must be afforded proper support and care. No matter what the nature of their injuries, that care should be provided in a way that preserves the dignity of the individual," the report says.

Col. Sharpe and Mike Spellen, a former infantry sergeant-major who served in Croatia and was a member of the board, said the military still suffers from an attitude that says soldiers should not complain about pain and injury. Soldiers too quickly dismiss complaints as coming from shirkers.

"The macho image is a major problem for our people," Col. Sharpe said.

Some family members of soldiers approached board members to say a loved one was suffering from an illness but did not want to be identified at a public hearing where superiors were present.

Col. Sharpe said that given the military's track record he is not surprised that many soldiers did not trust the inquiry and expected its report to be a whitewash.

He said the board chose its words carefully when it said the treatment afforded the soldiers was a disgrace, but rather than pointing the finger of blame at individuals, the board members want to fix the system.

The report says the government has to consider carefully what overseas missions it takes on and reconsider deployment rotation policies that see many soldiers going out on a new tour of duty after only 12 months back home.

Senior officers have said their units are about stretched to the limits. Canada is being forced to withdraw its contingent in Kosovo early next year because the military cannot sustain rotations of fresh troops.

A number of reforms to the military care system were announced even before the inquiry was convened last summer.

A confidential counselling service has been established along with six postdeployment medical clinics across the country.

Late yesterday, General Maurice Baril, Chief of Defence Staff, issued a news release saying he welcomes the Sharpe report and the high command accepts its "moral obligation" to provide medical assistance and support to veterans of peacekeeping missions.

"We are totally committed to seeing this situation put right," Gen. Baril said.

He said changes might be announced early in the New Year to rules requiring all members of the military to be fit for overseas duty.

The so-called universality of service rule "as it is presently applied is too inflexible," Gen. Baril said.

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