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Politics Veterans demand federal government examine role of mefloquine in Somalia Affair

Marj Matchee holds a photo and boots of her husband Master Corporal Clayton Matchee during an anti-malarial drug mefloquine rally September 19, 2017 on the front steps of Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

DAVE CHAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Veterans who believe a military-issued anti-malarial drug has left them with damaged brains are demanding the government to acknowledge what they say are the medication's chronic debilitating effects.

A few dozen vets, their family members and their supporters gathered on Parliament Hill on Tuesday to ask that further action be taken on mefloquine, both in determining how much harm has been done and in treating those who continue to suffer.

Dave Bona, who took part in the ill-fated Somalia mission in 1992, told the crowd he lived with depression and suicidal thoughts from the day he started taking mefloquine prior to that deployment until three years ago, when began to be treated for a traumatic brain injury. Mr. Bona previously told a Commons committee that at least two of the men in his 28-man platoon have died by suicide and at least six others have attempted it.

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"With the proper diagnosis and the proper treatment, we can stop these suicides," he said on the steps of the Centre Block. The government must "acknowledge that this drug caused problems," he said. "That's all they have to do and the health system will fall in behind them."

Mefloquine is still being offered – though not as a first option – to Canadian troops who are deployed to malaria-ridden countries. Veterans say they have experienced debilitating mood issues, sleep disorders, aggression, depression and memory loss as a result of mefloquine toxicity.

In Somalia, soldiers were ordered to take the anti-malarial drug as part of a poorly run and possibly illegal clinical trial by the Department of National Defence and Health Canada. Many complained of nightmares, unpredictable behaviour and paranoia. And, in March, 1993, master corporal Clayton Matchee, who had been experiencing hallucinations, and private Kyle Brown were charged in the beating death of Somali teenager Shidane Arone.

Mr. Matchee subsequently tried to hang himself and was left permanently brain damaged. Mr. Brown was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.

An inquiry into what is known as the Somalia Affair was cut short a few months before the 1997 election, one week before the issue of mefloquine was to be raised. The veterans who took part in the rally on Tuesday say they want that inquiry reopened to examine what part, if any, the drug played in the tragedy.

Marj Matchee, Mr. Matchee's wife, was at the rally.

"Clayton is going to pay a price for the rest of his life for any role that he ever played. He lost his life there and he'll never have it back," she said in an interview.

"I want acknowledgment, not just for him, but for the rest of these people suffering in silence," she said. The government "needs to find each and every one of these veterans on that list and see how they are doing and see if they have been poisoned by mefloquine and see what kind of care they can give them."

A review of medical literature conducted earlier this year by the Department of National Defence concluded there is no evidence that mefloquine causes permanent neurological and psychiatric problems, despite the anecdotal evidence from Canadian vets and concerns expressed by armed forces around the world.

When asked during the daily Question Period on the House of Commons on Tuesday whether the government would fund more research into the effects of mefloquine, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan did not give a direct reply.

"Whatever the cause, we support veterans with service-related illnesses and injuries. Every situation is unique," Mr. O'Regan said. "We work with each veteran on their individual circumstances. The health and well-being of our veterans is our top priority."

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the incident in which Canadian soldiers in Somalia beat a Somali teenager to death occurred in 1996. In fact, it was 1993.
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