Airborne veteran Claude Lalancette has spent the last quarter century living in a hell created by his own gov’t.
On September 19th, 2016, retired paratrooper Claude Lalancette sat on the grounds of Parliament Hill and began a hunger strike, protesting the government’s lack of recognition of those veteran’s affected by mefloquine poisoning. It would only last for 4 hours, but less than three weeks later he would be back again due to broken promises. This time his hunger strike would last for 4 days before the opposition finally met with him to give him 4 hours to testify before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs
It would prove to be a gesture of appeasement, and although Lalancette did get some of what he was looking for, in the end there was very little satisfaction to be had.
Claude was one of the first mefloquine vets that I contacted. I knew him from Twitter where his handle is Mefloquine Trooper, and I started to have a dialogue with him there. Eventually, I would come to know his identity and I reached out to him on Facebook. I really wanted to do a story on this guy. Anyone willing to go to Ottawa and camp out on the Hill in early October, and stage a hunger strike to boot was somebody I very much wanted to talk to.
I finally had the chance to talk to him on the phone, and it gave me the opportunity to get to know Claude as a man, a veteran, and as somebody with quinism. As I talked with him I found myself going back in time, recalling memories from over a quarter century ago.
Claude joined the army in 1990 and became a member of the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). That summer, he was deployed to Oka, Quebec, along with a group of approximately 2,500 soldiers, primarily from the Royal 22nd Regiment in Quebec, the Van Doo’s.
They were sent there in response to a stand-off between Mohawk Warriors and the Surete du Quebec that had captured the attention of the country in the summer of 1990. They would be there for a month, before the Mohawk Warriors turned over their weapons and the stand-off came to an end.
By 1992, Lalancette had re-badged to the Van Doo’s and was selected to join the ranks of the Airborne Regiment, serving in 1 Commando. On Boxing Day of that year, he arrived in Somalia leaving the cold Canadian winter behind, and landing in a comparative blast furnace with temperatures above 40 degrees C.
He doesn’t recall taking mefloquine before he left, but there were so many inoculations and pre-departure medications to take that he couldn’t be sure. He does recall being briefed about the drug when he got to Somalia however. He says that they were told that the medication they were being given was a new anti-malarial, taken once a week.
At no time were they told that the drug they were being given had not yet been approved in Canada, nor that they were to be part of a drug trial for this as yet to be approved drug. They were simply ordered to take the medication, refusal was not an option.
The most immediate side-effect Claude would feel was “gut rot”, followed by headaches, and photophobia. Then the nightmares would begin. As with most other people who experienced serious side effects, Claude would have vivid and disturbing nightmares. His wife was six months pregnant at the time, and he was dreaming that he was literally ripping her to pieces.
A large number of men in 1 Commando were experiencing unpleasant side effects after taking mefloquine, usually at their worst immediately after taking their weekly pill. In the third week of the deployment, word began to spread that soldiers were going to be refusing their next dosage. When the time came for the men to be given their weekly dosage, the platoon second in command was there with the medic. Once assembled, they were told that if they did not take their dose of mefloquine, they would be charged and jailed. The men then had to take the pill in front of Platoon 2 IC by opening their mouth’s to show that they had swallowed it.
Mayhem In Mogadishu
In January 1991 as rival warlords approached the Somali capital of Mogadishu, dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fled to a stronghold in the south of the country, but was ultimately forced into exile. After being in power for 22 years the former strongman became increasingly unpopular, leading to his ouster. He would die of a heart attack in Nigeria four years later.
Somalia erupted into civil war and to this day is considered a failed state. By 1992 the situation had deteriorated to the point that the UN stepped in and asked for international assistance to help with the humanitarian crisis that was developing on the ground. Cananda’s contribution began arriving in December of 1992. Claude Lalancette would land in Mogadishu on Boxing Day.
It wouldn’t be long before the first in a number of bizarre events would take place, which would later be understood to be a result of mefloquine toxicity. As I began hearing the same stories from more and more Somalia veterans, what started to become clear to me was how very lucky some of them were to have made it home alive.
Hijacking the party
Deploying at Christmas would mean that many troops would be missing out on turkey dinner with their families. In order to provide some morale to the newly arrived men, arrangements had been made to have a cruise ship brought to port for three days. There, over the course of three evenings, the troops would each have the chance to enjoy Christmas dinner at a party held aboard ship.
Lalancette tells me about an incident that happened just before he arrived in Somalia. A cruise ship had been brought in to port in Mogadishu for the purposes of having a Christmas party for those that had been deployed in the advance parties. It would be held over three nights to make sure everyone had an opportunity to go. On the second night howerver, things went awry.
The evening started out fine, as the group ate their dinner and had a few drinks. As the evening wore on however, some of the men had a few more drinks, and it wasn’t long before things had started to get out of hand. One of the men would bring the party to an end in a way nobody expected.
The man took his C5 knife and made his way to the bridge. Once there he attempted to hijack the ship, ordering the bridge crew to set sail back to Canada. After being subdued, he was taken off the ship and the following day was sent back to Canada under military police escort.
This wouldn’t be the only incident of bizarre behaviour to be seen on that tour. Lalancette tells me about a time when he was having a few whiskeys with a buddy on his birthday. Exchanging rations with foreign counterparts was common and the Italians had one ounce whiskey bottles in their rations. Since it was Lalancette’s birthday, his section members gave him their one ounce bottle to him.
Lalancette started to hear war drums. He was the only one hearing them and he wanted to explore where the sound came from. Only Lalancette’s drinking buddy was willing to go with him. They geared up and took off on a nonlegitimate patrol. They walked and walked through the desert night, following the sound until the sound stopped. Walking back to 1 Commando compound, Lalancette’s drinking buddy had a homicidal urges. His idea was to walk into a nomad hut and slice the throat of an innocent Somali while he was sleeping. Lalancette finally convinced him it wasn’t worth it and they both went back to base like nothing happened.
Alcohol and mefloquine don’t mix
In the years since then, we have learned a great deal more about mefloquine, such as the fact that alcohol should be avoided while taking it. In a 2013 article in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie wrote:
In addition to a dose-dependent progression, symptoms of mefloquine intoxication may exhibit a waxing and waning presentation. It is tempting to speculate that in some cases, this presentation may reflect the clinical course of an underlying limbic status epilepticus114 or limbic seizure132,–,134 kindled by the drug.135 In this regard, it is reasonable to speculate further that simultaneous use of alcohol or certain other drugs together with mefloquine could lower limbic seizure threshold or cause a further dysregulation of limbic inhibitory interneurons,125 contributing to a risk of sudden potentiation. Reports describing seizures and psychotic reactions immediately following alcohol ingestion are well represented in the literature,42,136,137 and alcohol use is frequently raised as a potential confounding factor in cases of severe reactions to the drug.27,138Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, Jerald Block and Remington Lee Nevin
Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online June 2013, 41 (2) 224-235;
Unfortunately no one knew this at the time. It’s likely that no one bothered to find out either.
In Part 2
A death in Somalia, a family torn apart, and a man pushed to a hunger strike.