'We were tortured': Recruits starved and humiliated as part of military training
Military police investigation into events now under review after no action taken
For the first time, former Canadian soldiers are speaking publicly about being tortured at the hands of the Canadian military during a prisoner of war training exercise in the 1980s.
The men say that in February 1984 they were among 33 young recruits who were stripped naked, crowded into small military jail cells with windows open, denied food and, for up to two days, repeatedly sprayed with cold water. For more than 40 hours they were forced to listen to loud rock music.
"I did experience torture at the hands of the Canadian Armed Forces," Jeffery Beamish, who lives in Orillia, Ont., says. "They allowed their battle school training to torture me through cold, through lack of food and through severities like being brought outside frozen and naked."
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More than 30 years later, the men tell Go Public the experience still haunts them, especially after a military police investigation in 2015 failed to result in any action.
"This was ice cold water. This was cold as you could get. The windows are open and you would be absolutely freezing," Beamish says.
"At points I just even stopped shivering, I was so cold."
Beamish and his fellow new recruit, Rodger Junkin, were both 19 years old when they found themselves forced into a prisoner of war training exercise on Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, 200 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.
"There was no room to sit down, no place to use the toilet," says Junkin, who grew up in Peterborough, Ont., and now lives in Alpirsbach, Germany.
"We had to urinate in cells or some guys had to take a dump right there, standing next to each other. There was no choice."
Angelo Balanos, then 23, had recently joined the Forces to serve Canada — and "pay back all the help we got growing up" in a poor, single-parent family in Windsor, Ont.
"They had music cranked up — Led Zeppelin, I think. I just remember the repetitiveness of the song over and over again for 40 hours straight," he says from his home in Burnaby, B.C.
"There's no other way to explain it but torture. And it didn't last for a couple hours…. To this day, I don't understand why they did this. It was just pure torture for no reason," Balanos says.
The men remember the instructors ripping up and burning the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, before telling the recruits they had no rights and would be kicked out of the military if they failed to complete the training.
Now in their 50s, these former soldiers repressed the memories for years during and after their military careers, unable to talk about the experience. Since leaving the military some have struggled with work, had problems with relationships and are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorders.
"The ability to stand up for myself for the first part of my career, I lost that," Junkin says. "I didn't know what was right or wrong. That was taken from me. Later in life, I realized you can't do this to me."
Beamish was eventually diagnosed with major depression and PTSD linked to the events of 1984.
Two years ago he filed a complaint with the military, but after a nine-month investigation military police found there was not enough evidence to lay charges.
That military investigation is now under review after Beamish, through his lawyer, raised concerns it was flawed.
Beamish is represented by Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel who's been practising military law since 2002.
"We have to remind ourselves soldiers, our sons and daughters, are first and foremost Canadians and they have human rights," Drapeau says.
Drapeau points to a recorded conversation, provided to Go Public, between Beamish and the investigator assigned to the initial complaint, saying it's evidence the military had no intent to lay serious charges.
"What is the court going to do to that person for this type of offence?" the investigator says to Beamish on the recorded call. "Are they going to put somebody that's 65 years or whatever in jail for something like this?"
On the recording, the investigator also tells Beamish no charges were laid because "torture didn't become an offence until 1985," a year after the prisoner of war course.
"It reduces the confidence that serving or retired members of the military have in the military police," Drapeau says. "What's the use of complaining?"
He says the PoW training failed to provide medical support and proper supervision.
"We don't want to damage soldiers, we want to toughen them up," Drapeau says.
"We want to prepare them for what they may have to face on the battlefield, but there is a line you cannot cross.
"Otherwise, as we see in this case, we have inflicted upon this individual a lifelong injury."
The man in charge of the Wainwright battle school in 1984 tells Go Public this is the first he's heard of the allegations of torture during the prisoner of war training.
Robert Dallison, a retired lieutenant-colonel, says preparing soldiers for what might happen behind enemy lines was part of regular training after some Canadians were taken prisoner in the Korean War.
But he says what happened in 1984 "doesn't sound right."
"The purpose of exercises is to give them a feeling or an understanding of what it would be like to be a prisoner," Dallison says. "Some of the things you mentioned, I certainly wouldn't have approved had I known about it."
Other senior military officials said the PoW training the men took part in is not part of any approved program they are aware of.
Veterans Affairs acknowledges injury
A few weeks ago, Veterans Affairs Canada agreed to cover Beamish's PTSD treatment. In a letter, the department acknowledged his mental illness was caused by his participation in the prisoner of war training exercise.
The former soldiers are hoping this new development will encourage the military police unit, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, to reopen the criminal investigation into what happened.
In an email to Go Public, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces says it takes all allegations and complaints seriously. "This is why we conducted a nine-month investigation into the matter," the statement says.
"We remain seized by this matter and, though there remains insufficient evidence to pursue this matter further, we strongly encourage anyone who feels wronged to come forward."
Meanwhile, another military department, the one that oversees military police, says it can't offer any more information until its review of the police investigation is complete.
'We're not lying'
As for Beamish, Balanos and Junkin, they say they're not looking for a payout, but answers.
"We're not lying about this. This took place. It happened," Junkin says.
"The minister of national defence should order an inquiry and deal with it, and if it was wrong — and I believe it was — I want an apology and an acknowledgement that this took place."
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