Ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces

Ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces

November 01, 2006 11:00 ET

Ombudsman Finds that the Health Concerns of Canadian Forces Veterans were Ignored

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(CCNMatthews - Nov. 1, 2006) - Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman, Yves Cote, today released a special report, entitled Heroism Exposed: An Investigation into the Treatment of 1 Combat Engineer Regiment Kuwait Veterans (1991), regarding the treatment received by Canadian Forces members exposed to toxic environmental substances more than a decade and a half ago.

The Ombudsman's report follows a comprehensive, three-year investigation into concerns raised by Major (Ret'd) Fred Kaustinen, former Deputy Commanding Officer of 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, that members of his Regiment were exposed to harmful substances throughout their deployment to Kuwait in 1991, and that their significant health concerns were systematically ignored during, and after, their service to Canada.

"It is clear from our investigation that members of 1 Combat Engineer Regiment discharged their responsibilities with exemplary courage and dedication to duty that demands special recognition," stated Mr. Cote. But he added, "It troubles me greatly that the legitimate health concerns of these proud veterans were not given the weight and respect that they deserved."

The investigation included more than 350 one-on-one interviews, 261 of which were with 1 Combat Engineer Regiment veterans of the Kuwait deployment. The investigation also included a review of the 2000 Croatia Board of Inquiry and two earlier operations in Afghanistan (2002 and 2003) to determine if the Department and the Canadian Forces have improved their practices since the 1991 Kuwait deployment.

It is important to note that the investigation was not an examination of potential causes of illnesses related to the First Gulf War, and not a review of the health consequences of the Kuwait experience. Instead, the investigation focused on the systemic treatment of Canadian Forces members that came forward with concerns about their exposure to harmful substances throughout their deployment in Kuwait.

Through this investigation, the Ombudsman found that members of 1 Combat Engineer Regiment on deployment in Kuwait were exposed to toxic environmental materials of various kinds for which they were not adequately prepared and about which they were not adequately informed.

Ombudsman investigators also found that the real and significant health concerns of 1 Combat Engineer veterans were not taken seriously when they returned to Canada from Kuwait.

"The core issue is one of trust," stated Mr. Cote. "Our military members need to know - and truly believe - that if they go on a mission healthy and return sick, Canada will take care of them and their family. Unfortunately for 1 Combat Engineer Regiment veterans, this was not the case," added the military Ombudsman.

The investigation also found that documentation of the environmental exposures in Kuwait was inadequate in the medical files of those exposed. This means that a number of veterans have experienced great difficulty demonstrating a connection between their health concerns and the environmental hazards they faced in Kuwait, thus making future disability claims much more challenging and time consuming.

Also of note, Ombudsman investigators found that the Department and the Canadian Forces are unable to provide, with any certainty, a complete list of all of those Canadian Forces members who were deployed in Kuwait in 1991, with the result that the organization is unable to communicate effectively with Kuwait veterans or track and analyze health outcomes on an organization-wide basis.

In releasing his special report, the Ombudsman recognized that improvements have been made in the areas of environmental risk assessment and the protection of Canadian Forces members deployed overseas, particularly since the implementation of many Croatia Board of Inquiry recommendations. Indeed, the Ombudsman concluded that the Canadian Forces has an environmental health program that is now second to none among Canada's allies.

At the same time, the Ombudsman highlighted significant concerns that were uncovered through an examination of recent missions in Afghanistan. Specifically, investigators found that the Canadian Forces remains overly reactive in communicating environmental and health risks to its personnel, both in the theatre of operations and post-deployment.

"In Afghanistan in 2003, the Department and the Canadian Forces were doing the right things technically but they were not communicating the results of their testing to the people on the ground," stated Mr. Cote. He added, "This resulted in the common perception that negative results were being withheld from them."

Ombudsman investigators also found that significant documentation problems identified in the case of the 1991 Kuwait deployment remain unaddressed more than a decade later.

Heroism Exposed contains nine recommendations aimed specifically at improving the way in which the Canadian Forces communicates and documents concerns - real, perceived and potential - related to environmental hazards on international military operations.

Additional information on the Ombudsman's special report can be found in the attached backgrounder or online at the following address: www.ombudsman.forces.gc.ca.

Contact Information

  • Office of the Ombudsman
    Darren Gibb
    Director of Communications
    613-992-6962
    or
    Office of the Ombudsman
    Michelle Laliberte
    Communications Advisor
    613-995-8643
    www.ombudsman.forces.gc.ca.