Disbanded regiment deserves to have its reputation rehabilitated.
By rights this issue should be classified as a scandal, with a lot more press coverage than it has received up to this point, and, it also happens to be one that is very personal to me.
I think I may have mentioned my family’s history in the military in a previous post, along with my ties to the PPCLI. My Uncle “Spike”, as he was known, was a Sergeant when he retired back in the early ’80’s, and a couple of years before he retired, he was asked (asked mind you) to join the Canadian Airborne Regiment. A one time army boxing champion, he had what it took to be a jumper. He still ran everyday in combat boots into his 50’s, switching to running shoes until he stopped running in his late 60’s.
So, when the regiment was disbanded in disgrace on September 1st, 1995, in the wake of the Somalia scandal, I felt the shock that one feels when told that a family member has died. It was as though a part of my self was somehow gone now. I couldn’t imagine there ever NOT being an Airborne Regiment.
Initially, I felt anger towards those who had committed the brutal acts that led to it. Them, the chain of command on the ground, the lot of them. These were bunch of racists whose bosses had given them free reign to terrorize the local populace, because they were too goddamn lazy or didn’t give a shit or both. Thanks to them, the Canadian Forces had a black eye, and the Canadian Airborne Regiment had ceased to exist. Way to go, assholes.
But then, some time later, mefloquine made the news, and all of a sudden, things weren’t quite so cut and dried after all. As the story began to unfold, the blame started to lift from the soldiers, and would ultimately land square in the lap of the Department of National Defense, and Swiss pharmaceutical concern Hoffman-La Roche.
Because of their actions, two Somali teenagers are dead, and the lives of some of the soldiers forever changed. A large number of veterans continue to suffer from the nightmarish side effects, and in all likelihood courts will be hearing cases for years to come in future legal actions.
The Stuff of Nightmares
Marketed under the brand name Lariam, mefloquine is an anti-malarial drug. Anti-malarial drugs have been available since the 19th century, when French scientists were able to extract quinine from the bark of the Cinchona tree, native to the Andean region of South America.
Quinine was in demand by European militaries, as colonialism made its way into tropical areas, and today, military personnel take the majority of doses of anti-malaria medications dispensed. It only makes sense that militaries would have an interest in their development, and have aided in the advancement of these medications over the years.
Big Pharma And The Military Industrial Complex
Lariam was developed by the US military near the end of the Vietnam War, as part of an effort to find an anti-malarial that was effective, economical, and safe. The first reported trials of mefloquine were done in 1975, on prisoners in the Joliette Correctional Centre in Illinois, while another was performed the following year at the Maryland House of Correction. No details of these trials can be found.
During the 1980’s, the pharmaceutical industry began lobbying the US congress in an effort to get their products to market quicker. Testing protocols were delaying the time it took to get a drug to market, and the drug companies wanted to shorten the time it took, so that they could begin earning revenue quicker.
So when the FDA approved Lariam for use in 1989, a number of critical studies relating to tolerability and interactions with other drugs had not yet been done. Within months of being released, safety concerns would begin emerging, yet the drug would remain to be the go to for the prevention of chloroquine-resistant malaria.
Start of a Scandal
The Canadian Airborne Regiment left for Somalia in December 1992, five months after then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had committed Canadian troops for the mission. Called Operation Deliverance, it would become part of the US led Operation Restore Hope, which would ultimately fall under UN control and become UNOSOM II.
The decision to send 2 Commando to Somalia had been controversial from the very beginning. The unit was known to be rife with racism, and was viewed to be the dumping ground for those with discipline issues. The CO of the regiment had been sacked for stating that the regiment was unfit for the mission, and replaced by Lt.Col. Carol Mathieu, who would lead the contingent in Somalia.
For whatever reason, the DND had made the decision the Lariam would be the anti-malarial prophylactic to be used on this deployment. Though available in the United States, Lariam was still unavailable in Canada, though it could be if it were being used in a clinical trial.
As with any clinical trial, there would be strict protocols that would have to be observed. There is a great deal of monitoring, testing, and recording involved in a clinical trial, and so knowing this, the DND made the decision to participate in the clinical trial for Lariam. Whether or not anybody bothered to look for any existing clinical data from the US is debatable, though I’m betting nobody bothered.
The Department of National Defense had absolutely no intention of doing any of what was required of it for the study, and this fact was apparent as soon as the mission started. There was no monitoring, no reporting of adverse events, no effort to even make it look like they were trying.
Worse still, the men had no idea that they were supposed to part of a drug trial. While they were told what the medication was for and what the possible side effects were, they were not given the forms to sign that would have constituted informed consent. As far as they knew, they wouldn’t have been given the medication if the government had thought it was dangerous. It’s an assumption we make all the time. They would have assumed wrong.
The Adverse Effects
It wasn’t long before some disturbing side-effects began to appear, similar to those that were reported in the United States. Anxiety, nightmares, paranoia, hallucinations, depression, and other serious symptoms began appearing.
It has been revealed in recent years that many of those serving in Somalia had exhibited these symptoms, including those involved in the incidents in question. For many, the symptoms continue to this day, years after taking the drug.
The stage was now set for a scenario straight out of a movie; a battalion of heavily armed, highly trained, potentially psychotic, racist killing machines, would be dropped into a high-stress mission in Africa. The worst-case scenario was about to play out.
In order to keep this from becoming a novel, I’ll dispense with most of the details, but feel free to do some research for yourselves online. The key points are two Somali teens, Shidane Arone and Ahmed Arush were killed, and a third, Abdi Hinde Bei Sabrie, was seriously wounded.
Master Corporal Clayton Matchee would be charged in relation to the Arone death, however he would attempt suicide by hanging himself, and would suffer permanent brain damage. Due to the extent of his injury, he will require constant care, and he no longer faces the criminal charges that were brought against him.
Trooper Kyle Brown would be found guilty of manslaughter and torture and serve a 40 month prison sentence. His life after getting out has been difficult, as he continues to suffer from PTSD and the neurotoxic effects of mefloquine.
Several others would face charges in relation to the matter, however most would later be acquitted by a court martial. These men and hundreds of others on that deployment would suffer from psychological anguish brought on by mefloquine neurotoxicity, which was identified in 2006.
It wasn’t until 2017 that the Canadian military decided to begin curtailing the use of mefloquine. It is no longer being offered as the first option in malaria prophylaxis for deployments. In fact, it appears as though mefloquine is being used less and less worldwide, as calls go out for further studies on the long-term effects. Litigation attorneys in numerous jurisdictions are busy preparing briefs for actions that will likely total in the billions of dollars.
We Really Need An Inquiry Do-Over
A three person Commission of Inquiry into the Somalia affair was convened in late 1995 by Defense Minister Art Eggleton, issuing its report in September 1997, after being cut short by David Collenette, Eggleton’s replacement.
Collenette had grown impatient with the commission, and when it was brought to an end, a great deal of testimony had yet to be heard. The final report contained 2000 pages over five volumes, and was highly critical of the leadership and culture within the Department of National Defense. There is no mention of mefloquine anywhere in it.
In 2017, Clayton Matchee’s wife, Marj Matchee, began calling for the government to re-open the inquiry. A great deal of information has come to light since the Commission’s incomplete report was released, and it needs to be brought to light. Had the information been available at the time, there is little doubt that it would have had an impact on the final report. To not re-open the inquiry would be a miscarriage of justice.
This incident is yet another in a series of incredible cluster-fucks that have taken place over the years, whose origins lie in an office in NDHQ. What I’ve noticed is that these scandals transcend politics, as they have happened under both Liberal and Conservative governments.
This would suggest to me that a problem exists within the culture of a fairly small group of decision makers at the very top. A review or study of their dynamic should be performed, in order to find ways of correcting the issue.
But then it dawns on my as I look at the words above, that we’re talking about the military. Short of firing everyone between the rank of colonel and Deputy Assistant Minister of Defense and starting over, I’m really not sure how you would go about fixing this. What I am sure of is that the men and women of our armed forces deserve a great deal better.
Kyle Brown, Clayton Matchee, and the rest of 2 CDO were not saints by any stretch of the imagination, and some held some pretty repugnant views, but they were professionals. The way I see it, and many will agree with me on this, without mefloquin, this wouldn’t have happened. The men of 2 CDO should not have to wear the mantle of destroyers of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. They, along with the Canadian Airborne Regiment, deserve to have their reputations restored.
A few days ago, one of my cousin’s on the other side of the rocks graduated recruit training, and will be joining the thousands of other’s who have decided to serve in reserve units across the country (congrats, Kevin). These units play a key role in our military, and many reserve soldiers have served bravely in overseas deployments.
Yet, the biggest threat he’s likely to face will come from within our own borders, and no, not from terrorist cells. The biggest threat he and every other soldier faces day in and day out, is located in the upper floors of NDHQ in Ottawa.