NATIONAL

A few good men, but no vindication

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI May 7 2007
NATIONAL

A few good men, but no vindication

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI May 7 2007

A few good men, but no vindication

NATIONAL

Record-breaking snipers can’t blame the military for their suffering

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI

They were the first Canadian troops to taste combat in Afghanistan. It was March 2002, back when 9/11 was still fresh and Canada’s coffin count was still zero. For nine days and nine nights, a team of Edmonton army snipers marched up and down the infamous Shahikot Valley, hunting al-Qaeda fighters and destroying enemy hideouts. By the time Operation Anaconda was over, the Canadian sharpshooters had reset the bar of their elite profession. One member of the unit—Cpl. Rob Furlong—broke the all-time combat record, killing another man from 2,430 m away.

They were the toast of the base. “Like rock stars,” said one fellow soldier. The Americans who worked beside them were so impressed with the snipers’ handiwork that they nominated all five men for the coveted Bronze Star medal.

Yet within days, their heroics were instantly forgotten, overshadowed by gruesome allegations that two of the snipers—Master Cpl. Graham Ragsdale and Cpl. Arron Perry—sliced a finger off an enemy corpse. The accusation never panned out; after a 10-month probe, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (NIS) said there wasn’t enough evidence to lay criminal charges. But the damage was done. Furlong, Perry and Ragsdale were on their way out of the army, convinced that the Forces had hung them out to dry.

For almost three years now, that question— “did the military mistreat its decorated snipers?”-has been at the centre of yet another investigation, this one by Yves Côté, the Canadian Forces ombudsman. Thirty months and 147 witnesses later, he now has an answer: the snipers were not abandoned. “Our investigators could not find any evidence that the members of the Battle Group had ostracized the snipers or that the chain of command encouraged or prompted this reaction,” reads his final report, obtained by Maclean’s. “The snipers, as a group, were treated fairly by the Canadian Forces before, during and after their service in Afghanistan.”

The report, 67 pages long, will certainly not sit well with some of the former snipers,

who still believe they were drummed out of the military for no good reason. “It’s sad to see what happened over there,” Furlong told Maclean’s last year, in his only public interview. “It took the shine off what really took place there, and destroyed people’s lives.” But according to the ombudsman, if lives were destroyed, it wasn’t the army’s fault. The chain of command did nothing wrong. In fact, Lt.-Col. Pat Stogran, the senior officer in Kandahar at the time, “took a personal interest in the snipers and ensured that measures were taken to assist them” as soon as the unit began to crumble. If anything, the snipers simply fell victim to a series of extraordinary events—some unfortunate, some self-inflicted. Côté’s report, for example, reveals that it was actually a fellow sniper—a master corporal from Manitoba who was temporarily attached to the team—who blew the whistle on Ragsdale and Perry, telling superiors that he witnessed both men stuff a cigarette in a corpse’s mouth. Perry was also seen with a plastic bag

that he “jokingly” said contained a severed finger. Ragsdale was immediately stripped of his command; days later, Perry was searched, arrested and put on a plane back to Canada. “The accumulation of these events shattered the cohesion and morale of the sniper team,” the ombudsman writes.

Nobody suffered more than Ragsdale. Overwhelmed by depression, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and discharged from the army. His father, Pat, wrote letter after letter to DND, demanding to know why his son, a Canadian war hero, was accused of “unfounded” crimes and “treated so badly.” Some of the others also spoke out, claiming they were harassed by the NIS. However, the ombudsman concludes that calling the police was still the right move, considering how serious the allegations were. He also notes that although no charges were laid, the NIS did in fact find a corpse with a missing finger.

“The Commanding Officer would be rightly subject to criticism if he had failed to act,” Côté writes. “While the subsequent investigation may very well have had a negative impact on the team’s morale, the referral of

THE ONLY THING THE MILITARY DID WRONG, THE OMBUDSMAN SAYS, WAS TO IGNORE THE CONCERNS OF A DISTRAUGHT FATHER

the allegations to the NIS cannot be considered unfair treatment.” (The Military Police Complaints Commission, another independent body, is in the middle of its own investigation into the conduct of the National Investigation Service.)

Again and again, the ombudsman dismisses any suggestion that the snipers got a raw deal. After Perry was arrested, the team said they

felt isolated and unappreciated. At one point, they were ordered to take a five-day leave of absence, which they interpreted as a scheme “to get them out of the country” while their friend was shipped home and the minister of national defence made a surprise visit to Kandahar.

‘The snipers believed they had been deceived,” Côté writes. “The investigation revealed no evidence supporting the snipers’ contentions on this issue.”

It also found no evidence that the Canadian brass plotted to deny the snipers their Bronze Stars. Although it took 21 months for Ottawa to rubber-stamp the U.S. honour (a lapse the ombudsman called “unreasonable and undesirable”) the men were ultimately recognized for their Anaconda exploits. The Canadian military also honoured them with Mentions in Dispatches. “Given that they were recognized and that they received honours and awards according to their achievements, I am satisfied that the snipers were treated fairly,” Côté writes.

Furlong is now a police officer. Ragsdale, still grappling with mental illness, lives in Edmonton, as does Perry, who was also diagnosed with PTSD and released from the military. The other two snipers are still serving.

Côté says he sympathizes with everyone’s plight, calling the entire saga an “extremely painful” story. But “the evidence does not support the attribution of the snipers’ mental injuries to unfair or inequitable treatment

by the Canadian Forces,” he says. “War and combat are extremely difficult and, very often, traumatizing. Unfortunately, and inevitably, there will be casualties of different kinds, including victims of PTSD, as happened here. The key is that the Canadian Forces, Veteran

IT TOOK THE SHINE OFF WHAT REALLY HAPPENED OVER THERE. IT DESTROYED PEOPLE’S LIVES.’

Affairs Canada and the Government of Canada ensure that these victims—and their families, where appropriate—receive at all times high-quality treatment, care and attention, together with proper benefits. Overall, my conclusion is that this has happened here for the snipers.”

So Pat Ragsdale, after years of writing letters, finally has some answers. His son and his comrades were not shunned. They weren’t targeted by jealous superiors. And his son’s PTSD is a by-product of combat, not the nonsense that happened after. In other words, the snipers—heroes one minute, outcasts the nexthad no reason to complain. As far as the ombudsman is concerned, the only person with a real beef is Pat Ragsdale, a father whose quest for answers was essentially ignored. “Those concerns called for a prompt and thoughtful response,” he says. “Instead, his letters were politely and repeatedly acknowledged without being properly answered.”

Some, no doubt, will think the ombudsman did the very same thing. M