Soldiers' Kuwait health complaints mishandled: ombudsman

Health problems experienced by Canadian soldiers exposed to environmental hazards in Kuwait in 1991 were mishandled by Ottawa and the armed forces, Canada's military ombudsman says in a new report.

Canada's armed forces were sharply criticized Wednesday by the military ombudsmanfor mishandling health complaints by Canadian soldiers exposed to burning oil wells in Kuwait in 1991.

Inhis report released in Ottawa, Yves Coté said hundreds of Canadian troops were exposed to radiation from depleted uranium shells after coalition forces ejected occupying Iraqi troops. They also continually inhaled thick black smoke from burning oil wells set ablaze by retreating Iraqi forces.

Many of the Canadians suffered from ill health almost immediately, Coté found.Others suffered from a variety of conditions, including liver failure, emphysema, constant headaches and brain tumours.

In his report, entitled Heroism Exposed, Coté said neither the armed forces nor the Department of National Defencepaid enough attention to the legitimate complaints of Canadian soldiers.

"The legitimate health concerns of soldiers were not given the weight they deserved," Coté saidduring a news conference. "If we send our [soldiers] abroad healthy and they return sick, they need to know that Canada, their country, will take care of them."

He said one senior non-commissioned officer who was sent to hospital in Kuwait City was treated upon his return to his regiment as "a disease, an outcast."

Protective equipment lacking: ombudsman

Nor were the troops adequately prepared for the environmental hazards of their mission, the ombudsman found.

"The Canadian Forces were aware that burning oil wells posed air-quality issues and some provision was made to protect personnel," Coté's report said. "However, these measures were partial and not universally applied.Adequate supplies of protective equipment to guide personnel on the ground were also lacking."

Coté also criticized the defence department for poor record keeping, saying Ottawa could not provide him with a full list of soldiers who had served in Kuwait, or even more recent operations in Afghanistan.

However, the ombudsman said, there had been notable improvements in recent years to the armed forces' ability to prepare soldiers for environmental risks on the battlefield.

Coté stressed that his report was not intended to establish a connection between soldiers' health problems and exposure to toxins, but was an examination of the response to those complaints by officials and superior officers.