As Shaun Arntsen fights the biggest battle of his life, he’s reaching others who are doing the same, and saving their lives.
I first heard from Shaun Arntsen about four days ago. He sent me a message on Twitter, where he is known as The Mefloquine Cowboy. He tells me he’d like to collaborate with me on something, a video and written media project about mefloquine. As I’m go through his posts on Twitter, one grabs my eye, it’s a You Tube video whose title warns me that I am about to see something emotionally charged. I watch the video, and it is what the title promises, and then some. Intrigued, I tell him that I’m very interested, and would like to talk. The next day, I hear back from him, and arrange a time to talk on the phone. It was at this point that I found out his real identity.
We exchange messages the following morning before finally connecting over the phone. In one of his messages, he lets me know that he needs to rest. I come to find out that Shaun in plagued by sudden debilitating headaches, and one has just taken hold. It is but one of a number of symptoms that he has experienced over the last 17 years. The symptoms began when he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2002.
When we do connect a short time later, he begins to tell me about the symptoms he is experiencing, symptoms that the Department of National Defense attributes to PTSD. He exhibits many of the symptoms that appear with PTSD, anxiety, depression, nightmares, but, he also has symptoms that are not seen in PTSD either.
He often experiences a tingling, pinprick sensation in his hands, has problems with his digestive system, and experiences episodes that he calls seizures, which, from his description of them, sound like petit mal seizures. He tells me that the things that trigger his anxiety are also unusual, in that they aren’t the normal triggers that one might see in PTSD. He tells me of how walking into a supermarket can be one of the biggest triggers of anxiety for him. The lighting in particular bothers him.
He then says something that catches my attention, when he talks about not getting anxiety from loud noises, and says something about being bombed in Afghanistan. Wait, did he just say he got bombed in Afghanistan? That didn’t make sense, our guys never got bombed in Afgha… is about as far as I thought before the words “Tarnak Farms” had popped into my head. A few moments later, he would confirm this, and I would suddenly realize who I had been talking with.
The Incident at Tarnak Farms
Canada’s first troops in Afghanistan were members of the elite Joint Task Force 2 special operations unit, followed soon after by the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) in January of 2002, led by Lt.Col. Pat Stogran, as part of Operation Apollo.
The battalion took part in Operation Harpoon in March before commencing training for future operations. The live fire training would take place at a location known as Tarnak Farms, which had previously been an al Qaeda and Taliban training area, and was known to pilots to be in friendly territory.
On the night of April 17th, a section from “A” Company was conducting nighttime training, when an American F-16 flying overhead saw the tracer fire down below. In a stunning display of incompetence, the National Guard pilot dropped a 500 lb bomb on them. Four men were killed, another 8 were wounded.
Although close by, because of where he was at the time of the explosion, Cpl. Arntsen escaped physical injury that night. The same could not be said for his psyche however and there isn’t a single normal human who wouldn’t be effected similarly. It should go without saying that an incident like this will result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he would begin to display the classic symptoms of it while still in theatre. The only thing was, what was happening to Shaun Arntsen was far more than just PTSD.
Battle For His Life
I wanted to get a sense for who the man was before I talked to him, so I did my online homework on Shaun Arntsen. I’m struck by the things that I find in his various social media accounts, and they start to give me an idea about who he his. First, in order to get a true sense of who he is, you have to look at all of them together. To simply view him through the lens of a single social media account will only leave you with a partial understanding of him.
Looking pictures of him, my first impression is that Shaun is someone who epitomize the word rugged. With his long hair, beard, and tattoos, he would look natural on the back of a motorcycle, and like many former soldiers he is active in the Canadian Veterans Motorcycle Unit. This group of motorcycle enthusiasts works to raise awareness of veterans issues on his community and across the province.
He describes himself as a “jack of all trades” and is just as comfortable operating heavy equipment as he is a camera. Using the knowledge and skills he picked up in the military, he offers tactical firearms instruction through his company Tactical Yoga, and is also an assistant coach with the Nakiska Alpine Ski Association, teaching and mentoring youth.
He’s a talented photographer, and appears to be just as comfortable in front of the camera as he is behind it. The pictures that he has taken, and those that he appears in himself, could very easily be in any number of glossy magazines, used to promote a men’s fragrance or to showcase a new clothing line.
Yet, there is another aspect to Shaun that you can’t see as much in those pictures. It’s the veteran, haunted almost continuously by demons that first appeared in Afghanistan. Like many veterans of that conflict, he’s had his struggles with drug and alcohol abuse and he’s been in trouble with the law. There are times when he’s filled with an uncontrollable rage, and he has had outbursts in public that have left some feeling uneasy, even unsafe.
During these episodes, although they may appear frightening from the outside, his rage is not directed towards any individual, and he has not attacked or otherwise menaced anyone during these episodes.
Over time, the retired corporal came to the realization that what was going on with him was more than the PTSD that the military said that he had. Many of his symptoms weren’t consistent with the diagnosis, and since they began 17 years ago, he has shown no improvement whatsoever over that time. As more and more stories about mefloquine began to emerge, it soon became clear that this was responsible for the nightmare playing itself out in Shaun’s brain and body.
He was perilously close to making the decision that many Afghanistan veterans have made, ready to end his own life in order to find himself free from the hell that he was living each and every day for years. But Shaun also is possessed of an incredible strength of spirit, and he decided to document his struggle on YouTube. His videos tell the story of a day in the life of a man who was poisoned by a neuro toxic substance that his government ordered him to take.
They are raw, edgy, and emotional, but also inspirational. Shaun Arntsen has a way of reaching his viewers the way very few people can. There’s no pretense to the man, what you see is what you get, and what you get is a dose of the reality that he and thousands of others experience daily. He can connect with people, and is a no bullshit kind of a guy, which is why he is quickly establishing himself as someone to be reckoned with, and someone that can be turned to for advice, or a little bit of support, or a message of hope at a time when it is so desperately needed.
With lawsuits pending, and a campaign of public awareness building, mefloquine will soon be getting the attention of the Canadian public at large, but there is still a lot of work to do. Every day, veterans are hearing about mefloquine and the damage it causes for the first time. For many, it almost comes as a relief, since it would provide the answers to a lot of questions that they may have been asking themselves.
Helping to lead the charge here in Canada is Shaun Arntsen, the Mefloquine Cowboy, who is saving lives as a result of his efforts. He is a man on a mission, and I’m hoping to be able to help him along in his quest to help his brothers in arms. He proved himself on the field of battle in Afghanistan, and his efforts now are nothing short of heroic.
Dedicated to the memory of the first four. Godspeed soldiers.