Canada

Victimized veterans

LUKE FISHER October 21 1996
Canada

Victimized veterans

LUKE FISHER October 21 1996

Victimized veterans

Canada

The symptoms include severe back pain, inflammation of the joints, fatigue and depression. And while American authorities have formally recognized the debilitating nature of the so-called Gulf War syndrome,

the source of the affliction remains a matter of heated debate. Revelations earlier this month that American aircraft had unwittingly bombed an ammunition depot in southern Iraq in 1991 containing chemical weapons has renewed speculation that chemical agents may be at the root of the sickness. Of the 2,500 Canadians who served during the Gulf War, 150 suffer from symptoms that they believe are related to their time in the Middle East. For them, the latest developments only add to the frustration they feel over the Canadian government’s steadfast refusal to officially acknowledge the syndrome. “There aren’t many of us here,” complains Luc Lévesque, who served as an army medic in Saudi Arabia and is co-founder of the Ottawabased Canadian Organization of Sick Persian Gulf War Veterans. “It’s easy for them to ignore us.”

It has not been so easy for the United States to ignore the more than 50,000 veterans who are believed to be suffering as a result of their Gulf

War service. Starting in the fall of 1993, the U.S. government recognized the Gulf War syndrome and began the process of offering compensation to its victims. They still, however, decline to make a link with chemical agents.

In Ottawa, Col. Ruth Mackenzie, who heads the Canadian military medical team investigating the illness, rejects Lévesque’s claims that nothing is being done. “It may seem slow, but we are doing our best,” she says, pointing out that 55 patients have already been examined at the National Defence Medical Centre and that a toll-free telephone line has been set up for sufferers. The department of veterans affairs is accepting applications for regular disability pensions and six former soldiers have already qualified. The main stumbling block to developing a specific compensation package is that the syndrome is not yet recognized as a medical condition in Canada. And Mackenzie insists that primary medical research must be done in the United States. “We have too few patients,” she says. “We are not in the big study business.”

Despite their reservations about the nature of the affliction, Canadian authorities say sufferers should not hesitate to ask for help. “Our door is open,” said Janice Summerby, a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs. Lévesque, and others like him, believe that door must be opened a little wider.

LUKE FISHER

in Ottawa