Poisoned soldier plans hunger strike at minister's office in exchange for care
Former Canadian Forces soldier Pascal Lacoste holds a copy of a test that displays a high level of uranium in his system as he sits in his home in Quebec City, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011. (Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, October 30, 2011 2:28PM EDT
MONTREAL - An ex-soldier who says he was poisoned while serving overseas is planning to go on a hunger strike outside the office of Canada's veterans affairs minister until he gets medical treatment.
Or until he dies.
Pascal Lacoste, who believes his steady decline in health began after he was exposed to depleted uranium in Bosnia in the 1990s, intends to stop eating on Nov. 5.
The Quebec City resident chose the date because he expects his weakened body to shut down six days later -- on Remembrance Day.
Lacoste, 38, says Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney and his department have denied his repeated requests for toxicology tests and decontamination treatments, even though his doctor says his body is carrying an unusually high level of uranium.
The government insists, however, it doesn't see depleted uranium as a potential risk for vets because few, if any, Canadian soldiers have ever come into contact with it while in service.
Ottawa also argues that tests performed a decade ago on a limited number of returning troops did not find any toxic levels of depleted uranium.
But Lacoste, who suffers from a degenerative neurological condition, infertility and chronic pain, insists he has all the necessary medical evidence to support his argument.
"If this is what my country expects from me -- to die instead of being treated -- then I accept my fate, except that I will do it publicly," said Lacoste, who plans to spend the hunger strike in his white SUV, which will be parked in front of Blaney's office in Levis, Que.
"It's not a good life, it's been 12 years of suffering. Man, I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy."
Depleted uranium, used in some types of ammunition and military armour, is the dense, low-cost leftover once uranium has been processed.
The metal is 40 per cent less radioactive than natural uranium and is not believed to be harmful unless dust from spent munitions or damaged armour is ingested, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
Military equipment containing the substance was used in the 1990s during conflicts in the Balkans as well as the first Gulf War -- both of which saw Canadian boots on the ground.
Because of this, Lacoste, who served in Bosnia in 1996-'97, maintains he's not alone.
He believes there are other veterans struggling with the health impacts of depleted-uranium contamination, though they may not even know it.
"I'm at peace with the idea of sacrificing myself for my brothers in arms," said Lacoste, who discovered he had an abnormally high level of uranium in his body in 2003, after his doctor tested his hair.
"If Minister Blaney allows me to die in front of his office, it will really shock public opinion."
A high-ranking official from Veterans Affairs says a handful of vets mistakenly believe their bodies have been damaged by depleted uranium.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said to the department's knowledge no Canadian soldiers have ever suffered health problems due to high exposure levels to the substance.
"Some of (these veterans) are in great distress, and some of them are quite disabled, but they won't get better so long as they believe that their health problems are rooted in depleted uranium," said the official, who declined to comment on Lacoste's case, citing confidentiality restrictions.
"You can't be treated properly if you don't have an accurate diagnosis."
The official said the substance was present in Bosnia and the first Gulf War, but not in the vicinity of Canadian troops.
"So, the chances a Canadian having been involved in anything involving DU is very, very small," the official said.
"I don't have GPS trackers on every single Canadian soldier, but again I'd be enormously surprised if anybody was involved in any of these engagements."
Asked if there is a standard toxicology test for soldiers returning from tours abroad, the official replied: "No, because it's viewed as essentially a non-issue."
But despite this assertion, the Federal Court of Canada has found depleted uranium to be an issue.
The court ruled the Veterans Affairs Department must compensate retired serviceman Steve Dornan for a cancer his doctors say resulted from exposure to depleted uranium residue.
When asked about this, the official replied that it was people outside the department who linked Dornan's cancer to depleted uranium.
"The recognition is that the evidence that was presented about Mr. Dornan showed that his illness could in some way be attributed to his service -- it's not more specific than that."
Blaney's office, meanwhile, responded to questions about Lacoste's plan to hold a hunger strike in front of his riding office, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City.
"I have personally met with Mr. Lacoste and following our meeting, I immediately asked departmental specialists to take the necessary steps to ensure the veteran is receiving all the benefits and services he is entitled to," Blaney said in a statement sent by email.
But Lacoste's Montreal-area physician, who suspects he has been poisoned with depleted uranium, said Ottawa must do more.
"There's little doubt in my mind that he needs immediate attention and the advantage of further investigations," said Dr. June Irwin, a dermatologist with an interest in environmental health who has been following Lacoste since 2003.
"This is a man who needs help."
Irwin doesn't know of any services in Canada that could treat Lacoste. She suggests he get medical care at a specialized clinic in Texas, where he would likely undergo a battery of procedures over several weeks at an estimated cost of $50,000.
Lacoste's supporters argue the government has an obligation to give veterans like him the benefit of the doubt and approach his case with compassion -- not with bureaucracy.
"I would highly recommend him not to go on a hunger strike because that could affect his health," said NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer, who added that more and more ex-soldiers are coming forward with concerns about depleted uranium.
"But I can completely understand why he feels he has to do it."
Lacoste, meanwhile, is preparing for a protest during which he will only consume water and his daily medications.
He will inflate an air mattress in the back of his truck so that he will have a place to lie down as his energy level drops. And if someone tries to force him to leave, the former airborne-unit member says he will chain his wrists to the bumper of his SUV.
"When I was on a mission, I defended Canadian values, like my brothers and sisters in arms," said Lacoste, who added that it's not in a soldier's nature to ask for help.
"And today, those same brothers and sisters in arms are sick like me."