ALEX DOBROTA, THE GLOBE & MAIL, NOVEMBER 2, 2006
OTTAWA — Canada failed its first Persian Gulf war veterans who fell ill after being exposed to poisonous chemicals, including depleted uranium from U.S. munitions, a military ombudsman said yesterday.
One soldier of the 1 Combat Engineer Regiment died of cancer, and about 60 others developed cancer or respiratory symptoms after the unit fought a fire at a U.S. munitions depot in Doha, Kuwait, in 1991.
The warehouse contained shells made of depleted uranium, a radioactive metal heavier than lead and prized for its armour-piercing properties.
But the Canadian Forces have so far systematically ignored the complaints of the soldiers who inhaled that toxic smoke, Forces ombudsman Yves Côté said yesterday.
“Their significant health concerns were systematically ignored during, and after, their service to Canada,” he told reporters.
In a damning 46-page report, the ombudsman detailed how key information was left missing from medical files of some of the 340 combat engineers.
That hampered the soldiers’ claims to compensation or care, the ombudsman said.
And while the Department of National Defence has improved some of its record-keeping procedures since then, the same fate could befall Canadians serving in Afghanistan, Mr. Côté suggested.
“The National Defence [Department] seems unable to identify with accuracy and confidence who was deployed and for what period of time during recent missions to Afghanistan,” he said.
In 2000, a board of inquiry that looked into allegations that Canadian soldiers were exposed to toxic material while serving in the Balkans also found that deployment lists lacked key information.
A DND official disputed the ombudsman’s position.
During the mid-1990s, the Forces implemented a computerized system that keeps track of all its soldiers deployed overseas, Lieutenant-Commander Pierre Babinsky said last night.
But that system provides no information as to exactly where in a combat theatre an individual solider has served, LCdr. Babinsky said.
Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor said in a statement that his department will study the ombudsman’s report.
A senior officer who served with the combat engineer regiment in Kuwait welcomed Mr. Côté’s report. “This is fantastic,” said retired major Fred Kaustinen.
“It’s great that a leader in our system has stepped up and said these guys didn’t get what they deserved.”
The ombudsman’s report appears to be the first acknowledgment from a DND official that soldiers were exposed to noxious substances while in Kuwait, an assertion many of them have repeatedly made.
But the report could not establish a clear connection between the exposure to depleted uranium and the health problems developed later by the soldiers who served in that mission.
Nor did it find a definite link between the smoke billowing from the burning wells in the region — which sometimes obscured the light of day — and respiratory diseases some soldiers developed.