A Poisoned Inquiry

John Geddes,John Nicol August 23 1999

A Poisoned Inquiry

John Geddes,John Nicol August 23 1999

A Poisoned Inquiry


John Geddes

John Nicol

It’s easy to see why Matt Stopford was popular with his fellow soldiers during his army years. Although his right eye is covered by a patch these days—the most obvious sign of the myriad health problems that have plagued him since his stint in 1993 as a peacekeeper in Croatia—his good left one still creases with laughter. Stopford even finds humour in last weeks revelation that military investigators believe he and another veteran might have been systematically poisoned by fellow soldiers. The investigators theorize that battery acid was put in Stopfords food and naphtha gas was regularly slipped into both men’s coffee when they were serving in Croatia, a tour of duty that included a dangerous stint in an infamous zone called the Medak Pocket. Already, Stopfords army buddies kid him. “This will be the joke on me forever now,” he chuckled in an interview with Macleans. “Somebody will be saying, ‘Here, Matt, have a Medak coffee.”

Stopford insists the poisoning theory is ludicrous. But Brig.-Gen. Patricia Samson, the armed forces’ top police officer, says it is based on information her investigators gathered from two credible sources. They were questioned as part of an ongoing probe into the destruction of certain medical files of peacekeepers who fell ill after serving in Croatia and who may have been exposed to toxic substances there. Samson says she took the unusual step of passing the information on to the two possible poisoning victims before the investigation was completed out of concern for their health and safety. “I was caught in an extraordinary ethical and moral

dilemma,” she told an impromptu news conference, called only after Stopford went public to disclose this latest bizarre turn in the investigation.

The swirl of media attention that followed was nothing new for Stopford, 37, who lives in Peterborough, Ont. He has emerged as the unofficial leader of a loose network of active and retired soldiers who believe they suffer ill health—from aching joints to failing eyesight— as a result of something they ate, drank or breathed in Croatia. But the second supposed target of poisoning,

Bizarre game or coverup

Did Canadian peacekeepers really poison their superiors?

Bill Nickson, 44, of Saint John, N.B., was reticent about speaking out, in part because he has faith in the inquiry. Nickson said he felt compelled to talk to Macleans only out of concern that anyone might think the poisoning story suggests there was bad blood among the 36 soldiers in his platoon. Nickson was a master corporal and Stopford the noncommissioned officer in the Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry’s Delta Company in Croatia. “When one of our checkpoints took fire, the rest of the platoon was out of barracks,

in a platoon carrier, armed to the teeth and backing them up in a minute,” Nickson remembers with pride. “There were no cowards in that platoon.”

The units cohesion was tested in battle conditions rarely experienced by peacekeepers. It landed in the war-ravaged remains of Yugoslavia in the spring of 1993, squeezed between Croatian and Serbian forces who were still lashing out at each other in their bitter ethnic war. Near a strategically important bridge by the town of Maslenica, the platoon hunkered down in an old school and some partly destroyed houses. “The Serbs had an artillery battery behind us,” Nickson says. “It was interesting to watch round after round go overhead and land at the bridge. Our purpose was to move in and establish a ceasefire line, once a line had been agreed to.”

Even tougher was the mission when the platoon was sent northeast to the area known as the Medak Pocket. “At that point, the Croatians there were burning villages and killing everyone,” Stopford recalls. “Everything was dead across the fields, thousands of sheep and cattle, and there were bodies some places, and every standing structure was on fire, cars were on fire. We pushed the

Croatian army back, and then we had to clean up.”

Nearly six years later, pinpointing what, if anything, in those grim conditions left peacekeepers chronically sick is a tall order. Stopford and some other ex-soldiers—he says 36 others who are sick have contacted him—trace their health problems to the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, spilled from smashed electrical transformers, and to the bauxiteladen red soil they shovelled into sandbags to make bunkers. A doctor’s note warning about exposure to those substances was put into the medical files of as many as 1,000 peacekeepers who served in Croatia—then mysteriously removed. The Reform party learned about the missing notes through an access-to-information request and exposed the tampering. That was when Defence Minister Art Eggleton and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Maurice Baril responded with an inquiry.

Finding out who ordered the cleansing of the files was to have been the inquiry’s first order of business. The board itself, however, soon become mired in controversy. Its head, Col. Howard Marsh, turned out to have been among the officers who did not take decisive action when he was told about the problem back in May, 1998. Faced with media


charges that he would have to investigate his own possible negligence, Marsh initially said that was not a problem, then suddenly stepped aside last week. He was replaced by air force Col. Joe Sharpe.

But the transition was not that simple. Eggleton and Barii also decided to split the inquiry’s mandate. Sharpe is now mainly to look into what possible health threats peacekeepers were exposed to in Croatia. A separate team led by former assistant RCMP commissioner Lowell Thomas will investigate the related—and more politically volatile—issue of how the defence department handled the matter back home.

Last week, ex-corporal Andrew Beckett, who had also served in Croatia, acknowledged shredding the medical files at the army’s Calgary medical centre. He said he was acting on orders from Warrant Officer Danny Noyes, who ran the centre and who said he had his instructions from higher up.

Detailed terms of reference for the revamped inquiries are expected to come out this week. But one thing is already clear: Sharpe and Thomas will be ordered to stay out of the way of Insp. Russ Grabbe, an RCMP officer on loan to military police who is investigating whether a crime was

committed when the soldiers’ medical files were altered. “Insp. Grabbe will do what he has to do and has precedence over all the others,” says armed forces’ spokesman Lt.-Col. Jacques Tremblay.

Veterans of the Croatian mission seem suspicious of all three inquiries

So far, veterans of the Croatian peacekeeping mission seem suspicious of all three investigations. Some, like Stopford, are publicly calling for an inquiry that is independent from the military hierarchy. Still, Stopford had been willing to pass on all the information he has gathered to retired master warrant officer Mike Spellen, a plainspoken Winnipegger named by Baril to sit on the board of inquiry as a representative of soldiers who served in Croatia. But in another strange twist, Stopford says he was instructed last week by an officer not to contact Spellen. “I wanted to give him names and phone numbers of sick soldiers,” Stopford says bitterly. “But I guess the army doesn’t want that, so I’m not allowed to talk to him until after the inquiry and he’s not allowed to talk to me.” Lt.-Col. Tremblay confirmed that such dialogue would not be welcomed. “Whenever the board does contact people it will be in a formal way,” he said, “in writing.”

Distrust of the way the armed forces is handling the investigation only deepened with the improbable-sounding poisoned coffee tale. Army cooks who dished up meals in Croatia scoffed at the notion that anyone could have poisoned just two soldiers drinking from the same coffee pot and eating the

same food as all the rest. Doctors have also suggested that naphtha is a very aromatic gas and would have been detected, especially when heated in a cup of coffee. Stopford charges that the whole story seems concocted to divert attention from the possible coverup of a serious health risk. That allegation sounds extreme—but he is not alone in levelling it. “What I think is that they’re blowing smoke so it takes everybody’s eye off the real issues, destruction of documents and possible exposure to contaminants,” says retired warrant officer Ed Dagenais, who was in charge of a platoon that often crossed paths with Stopford’s in Croatia. Dagenais is among those worried about his health: he has experienced an unexplained weight loss, dropping from 168 lb. to 148 lb. since his return from duty. As for the chances that the crisscrossing investigations will provide answers, he falls in with the skeptics: “I’ve been in the army long enough to know the army can’t investigate itself. We’ve seen that with the Somalia investigation.”

Stopford also knows the army well—or at least thought he did. Before Croatia, he served on two rotations as a peacekeeper in Cyprus, and spent five happy years with Canada’s troops in Germany. His reputation was solid: a guy you could trust, a little messy (he was nicknamed Pig Pen, also Meathead) but good for a laugh in a tight spot. He was the classic career soldier, having joined the army at 17, fulfilling a dream he had growing up in Kincardine, Ont., on Lake Huron.

Now, though, the good days seem a long time ago. Stopford recounts his deterioration after coming home from Croatia: first a lung infection, then night sweats, finally debilitating joint pain and failing sight in his right eye. During this litany, his face falls slack. His disability pension from the department of veterans affairs has finally been granted, he says, as a result of the turmoil of recent weeks. And only last week, he adds, after years of pleading for help, he was finally told by armed forces officers that they are searching for appropriate specialists to examine him. “They haven’t done the right thing,” he mutters, his voice dropping as though he is talking to himself. “They are going to before I’m done.” Lor jovial Matt Stopford, this is no joke. E3