JEFF SALLOT in Ottawa ANDREW MITROVICA in Toronto
A Canadian Forces medic says he told military police seven years ago that frightened young soldiers on a dangerous Croatian deployment tried to poison their gung-ho platoon leader, Warrant Officer Matt Stopford, but the police never did anything about it.
Some of the soldiers so feared that they were being led to their deaths that they dug graves for their officers and began carrying extra rounds of ammunition -- a macabre gesture indicating that the soldiers were at least thinking about trying to get rid of their leaders.
The medic, Corporal Steve Atkins, said that superior officers in the deeply troubled unit were told of the poisoning attempts at about the same time. But the senior officers turned a blind eye to these outrageous activities by subordinates because formal investigations might reflect badly on their leadership.
Cpl. Atkins, who is on medical leave awaiting discharge because of posttraumatic stress disorder, described a bizarre chain of events during the Canadian Forces deployment in war-torn Croatia in 1993 in which young soldiers feared that reckless, gung-ho leaders were asking them to take too many risks.
Cpl. Atkins said in a telephone interview yesterday that the tone was set by the commander of Delta Company, a major, who, while drunk one night at a unit "smoker," told his troops he wanted to lead them into battle and die with them gloriously.
The major then pulled his pearl-handled handgun out and fired it over the heads of the troops, setting off a flurry of activity by sentries who thought the camp was under attack, Cpl. Atkins said.
On another occasion the same major disdainfully pointed his gun in the direction of a frightened soldier who had tried to slit his wrists and told medics to send the young man home and not back to the unit. The major said that if they sent the soldier back he would have to "put him down like a dog."
Cpl. Atkins said he learned about the plot to poison Mr. Stopford directly from the soldiers, who were having no luck. They had already tried putting naphtha gas, antifreeze, boot blackener and other toxic substances in Mr. Stopford's coffee to no avail.
The soldiers even tried using local ground water, which was contaminated by the rotting corpses of people killed in the conflict, Cpl. Atkins said. But the platoon leader seemed to have a cast-iron stomach.
The soldiers even asked him to recommend something to make Mr. Stopford so sick he could no longer lead the platoon, Cpl. Atkins said.
The soldiers wanted the medics to have Mr. Stopford declared insane to get him out of the picture, Cpl. Atkins added.
"I told them, 'No, no, no and no,' " Cpl. Atkins said. He said he was torn because he believed the soldiers had legitimate concerns about the reckless attitude of leaders.
On the other hand, he was concerned for Mr. Stopford's health. Cpl. Atkins said he discussed what to do with an ambulance driver and three other medics and they decided to report the plot against Mr. Stopford to their superiors.
Cpl. Atkins said the officers up the chain of command didn't want to hear about the plot.
The medic said he reported it to a Canadian Forces military police officer in the fall of 1993. He said the officer took notes, but nothing ever came of the report. Cpl. Atkins said he can't recall the police officer's name.
None of the soldiers can be charged under military law because of a three-year statute of limitation that ran out in 1996.
RCMP Inspector Russ Grabb, who is heading the current police investigation into the poisoning allegations and other Croatia-related incidents, said yesterday that six soldiers have acknowledged trying to poison Mr. Stopford, who has lost sight in one eye and suffers from other mysterious maladies.
He said Cpl. Atkins was interviewed by his team, the sensitive investigations unit of the military police. The unit is part of the Canadian Forces National Investigations Service, created two years ago as a police force and independent of the chain of command. It was created in the wake of the Somalia scandal after military police said military brass hampered their investigations.
Cpl. Atkins's own immediate superior, Captain Kelly Brett, an army doctor, has said morale was so low that soldiers were digging graves for their officers.
Dr. Brett, who has since left the military, testified at a board of inquiry that members of Delta Company were going "crazy" because the "welfare of our soldiers was often grossly overlooked."
Dr. Brett testified before the military's board of inquiry examining the potential exposure of Canadian Forces personnel to toxins in Croatia on Sept. 22, 1999.
In his lengthy testimony, Dr. Brett, one of two medical officers for the Canadian force serving in Croatia, painted a disturbing picture of an ill-equipped, inexperienced, poorly trained battalion wracked by fear and traumatized by a peacekeeping mission gone terribly awry. He described the treatment of Canadian soldiers by their superiors as "atrocious."
"We sent a bunch of reservists over there," Dr. Brett said.
Dr. Brett told the board that the deployment of soldiers in Croatia resembled a "bad John Wayne movie."
He said that on numerous occasions he raised concerns about "problems" with the battalion with the commanding officer, but was repeatedly rebuffed.
He said he was particularly concerned about "horrific stories" he heard from several sources about members of the battalion's Delta Company.
The stories included that of "graves being dug for a couple of guys in senior ranks of that company."
Dr. Brett also hinted strongly that members of Delta company were prepared to kill their own commanders.
"Guys [were]carrying an extra couple of rounds around in their pockets to use if they got a chance to use them," he told the board.
Several calls to Dr. Brett's home and office in Calgary yesterday went unreturned.
Colonel James Calvin, who commanded the Canadian battalion in Croatia in 1993, was also unavailable for comment yesterday.