'25 years I struggled': Sask. veteran pushing Ottawa to help soldiers affected by anti-malaria drug
An army veteran from Saskatchewan will share his story of paranoia, anxiety and suicidal thoughts in Ottawa on Tuesday to push the government to help soldiers who suffer the side-effects of the anti-malarial drug mefloquine.
Dave Bona is a 14-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces who served in Somalia and Rwanda.
He said he suffered from the effects of mefloquine for 25 years but, until three years ago, was misdiagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bona will march in Ottawa today to push for better supports for soldiers who suffered the side-effects of the drug.
"What we have is a small population of soldiers that were on the drug and we're ill, a large percentage of us are ill," said Bona.
Side-effects from the start
He first took the drug mefloquine before his deployment to Somalia in 1992.
"From the very first day I took the drug I immediately felt sick and that night I had my first seizure," said Bona.
He said his vision went black and for a few seconds he saw stars, followed by a longer-lasting feeling of dizziness. His symptoms got worse when he arrived in Somalia, where he said he became withdrawn, moody, confused and easily angered.
By the time he was a quarter of the way through his deployment, Bona was suffering from severe anxiety attacks.
"I became extremely suicidal throughout and that stuck with me up until about three years ago," said Bona.
"Also my anger management — I lost my ability to manage my anger. I would snap and lose it at the drop of a hat."
Frightening incident with rifle
Bona also remembers waking up from a sleep-walking episode as he was carrying a rifle across a compound, and realized the thought in his mind was that he was going to shoot someone.
He said the soldiers around him were also behaving strangely, citing an instance where he saw a member of the military randomly fire at a small bird.
Fearing his career would be over if he reported his symptoms, he kept his health struggles to himself until after he returned to Canada.
When he sought help, Bona said he was mistakenly treated for post-traumatic stress disorder until a doctor diagnosed him with brain damage caused by toxic levels of mefloquine.
He believes a lot of veterans are being incorrectly treated for PTSD, saying individuals affected by mefloquine will not respond to traditional PTSD treatment.
Symptoms did not respond to PTSD treatment: Bona
Bona said he saw a dramatic improvement in his symptoms within three months of starting non-PTSD treatments.
"Twenty-five years I struggled and suffered tremendously," he said.
"Part of the symptoms I had with me was the severe depression that was right from the get-go with that drug, up until three years ago when I started doing treatment for traumatic brain injury."
The Department of National Defence said there is an ongoing review into the use of mefloquine in the Canadian Armed Forces overall, adding that no further information would be available until it is complete.
But Bona is pressuring the government to speed up the review so the federal government can provide a diagnosis, and subsequent treatment, for affected veterans.
When he takes that message to Ottawa on Tuesday, Bona will be joined by Marj Matchee from Meadow Lake, Sask.
Marj Matchee to join rally
She says mefloquine — given to all soldiers who went to Somalia in 1992 — drove her husband "to madness."
Clayton Matchee was charged with second-degree murder and torture in connection with the 1993 death of 16-year-old Shidane Abukar Arone, who was accused of trying to break into the Canadian Forces compound as a looter.
More than a decade later, those charges were dropped after it was determined Clayton was unfit to stand trial.
Matchee is asking the federal government to reopen the inquiry into the Somalia mission.
"Canada needs to buy on and the only reason they don't is because they don't want to face the Somalia affair," she said.
"It's time it was dealt with. Reopen the Somalia inquiry. Let the chips fall where they may, the truth be told, and the charges laid where they should be."
She also wants the government to look at mefloquine's use countrywide, as it is available to the public.
The Department of National Defence said this week it has no plans to open an investigation into the use of mefloquine in Somalia, specifically.