Random Analytica

Random thoughts, charts, infographics & analysis. Not in that order

Category: Mefloquine

Submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

My story starts in 1999 when I first self-reported about mental health concerns. To the best of my knowledge I am the only person to self-report from Operation Baritone (1997).`

On the 22nd March 1997 the online company from the 3rd Brigade including a detachment from the 103rd Signal Squadron of which I was a part, commenced deployment operations for an airlift to Port Moresby as part of a Company Group deployment.

It was the first part of a larger plan to ‘temporarily’ re-occupy Papua New Guinea during the Sandline Affair.

One of my limited memories from the pre-deployment was of the RMO making their notes on the back of the soldier in front of me, then the same for the next in line. Things were moving very quickly.

As part of our pre-deployment the company was given a number of medications including a mefloquine loading dose over three days to counteract malaria. After recent investigations I found that anti-malarials was not noted in my medical records. I have since been able to prove that I was given mefloquine via my Red Cross blood donation history.

Long story short, the Sandline Affair works itself out without Australian intervention and Company Group is given a leave pass to get on the drink. So close though. Another Fiji, 1987.

This should be my sad old war story that I bore my family, friends and ANZAC cronies with. Except I don’t do ANZAC Day and I don’t remember any of it until a series of ‘flash-backs’ in 2018/19 become so bad that they hospitalise me. Ironically, it is on the 22nd anniversary of Operation Baritone I was finally admitted to a mental health facility.

Mefloquine sent me insane. I have attempted suicide in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2014. When I finally worked out what the Army had done to me in early 2019 I was more relieved than angry. I could finally die with a little peace.

I battle on though. When enough memory had returned that I was able to prove the wider mefloquine exposure I tried to inform all the relevant authorities. Entities such as the Army HQ, the DVA were not interested in finding these men. The Australian Defence Force Malaria and Infectious Disease Institute and the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee were sympathetic but unhelpful.

So it is over to you. A Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

A company of soldiers were given mefloquine in 1997, a medication which was noted by the World Health Organisation as harmful in 1989 and is now hardly used by the Australian Defence Force.

Some from the Company Group will be dead from their mefloquine exposure. Some, like me, are permanently damaged. Many would not have experienced any symptoms and would wonder what all the fuss is about. It is a medication that many Armed Forces wish they had never used now.

The men of my Company Group assigned to the opening phases of Operation Baritone deserve to be told they were exposed to mefloquine.

For your review & consideration.

26. Mefloquine Dispatches: LBMC, 28th April 1997

I wake up. I’ve managed to snatch a few minutes or hours of blessed sleep. I haven’t slept in a couple of days. I’ve got a whole body rash. In and out of ice-baths and I cannot stop scratching. If that’s not bad enough I can’t sleep as well. Don’t know why. I blame the itching but I’m pretty wired. My hands are covered in scratches. What happened there?

I’m bored. I look around for some alcohol swabs to put on my cut-up hands. There’s none near my bed but the little box is in its place, it’s just happens to be empty. At the next bed, the same story, no swabs. I don’t want to pinch the other bloke in the wards stuff but I’m desperate. I peek over. His are gone too? Curious I go out for a walk to find the duty medic. I know her. We lived together in the same Barracks when I was posted to the BASC unit the previous year.

“Hey T*, you got any alcohol swabs?”

“Sure” she says. She comes over and checks my hands. “Ouch, I saw these when you came in”. She smiles. “Must have been a bit of a scrap?”

I just smile. It’s all a bit fuzzy.

“Anyway, I shouldn’t tell you… but you know that that bloke in the ward with you?”

“Yeah” I reply. I’m interested now. I’ve always loved gossip.

I lay my hands flat on the counter while T* gently cleans the fine wounds. It stings a little.

“Ok, the reason why you don’t have any alcohol swabs is that bloke has been chewing them all. We had to take all the alcohol swabs out of the ward. Must have a big drinking problem, do you think?”

I shrug “Makes sense, I suppose”.

Not really but we all see lots of silly shit in the Army. Medics see it more than most.

24. Mefloquine Dispatches: Sausage rolls and the Red Cross, 1st July 1997

February 2019.

I had been doing memory recall exercises for some weeks at this point.

The process consumes me. I’m not really ready for this type of Rapid Exposure. As I sit with my psychologist we do the work and then he spends time ‘bringing me down’. When I do it on my own I go for hours. I’m a student who thinks he is a professor.

I’m merging into an old pattern which I am starting to recognise. It’s my roller-coaster. Every six to nine months. For more than two decades.

The memory work has been fruitful. I’ve remembered taking the mefloquine which was the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) at the time. Is that enough to prove I was given mefloquine?

One of the boys gives me a doctor in the United States who I can talk to. I approach him with the evidence I have. He advises that it isn’t enough. I have no notation of mefloquine on my medical records. In fact he noted that I was cleared for doxycycline.

I’m devastated. It doesn’t matter what I can remember or what the SOP was at the time, without some sort of concrete evidence I know I’ll have a hard time proving my exposure.

I do more memory work. I should be resting. I look terrible. I feel awful. I’m not sleeping.

I get a memory.

Sausage rolls! I’m sitting in a clinical room across from a nurse who is taking notes. I’m at the Red Cross giving blood. The nurse gets excited about my blood because I had been given an anti-malarial without travelling (which is very unusual). I was there for hours too because I remember getting sausage rolls. In 1997 that was a big deal. Normal blood donations usually meant jatz biscuits with some cheese, not the luxury of sausage rolls!

At this stage I still cannot remember what I was given but despair has turned to elation.

Reality kicks in. What did I tell the nurses back in 1997? If I told them what medications I had taken did they note it? Do the notes still exist? How the hell do I access decades old records from the Red Cross?

I make a call to the Red Cross. They explained the process. I email the paperwork in March 2019.

A doctor from the Red Cross returns my call a week later. The news is confirmation of the worst. I was given mefloquine by the Army in March 1997.

I remember screaming into the sand in front of my kids when I heard the news. It was pure RAGE. We had taken the day off to enjoy a swim at a local creek. I had to collect myself before I thanked the doctor. I am so angry I gave my eldest son my phone. It takes me hours to calm down.

* Red Cross records from 1997

I finally calm down.

The evidence was compelling. Not only had I been given mefloquine in 1997 the Army had failed to note it.

Thank goodness for sausage rolls and the Red Cross!

23. Mefloquine Dispatches: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, 28th February 2020

In correspondence to the Australian Senate in November 2019 I requested answers to the following questions:

  • I would like to know the status of the comprehensive health assessments announced by the minister on 15 March 2019;
  • I would like all the personnel involved in Operation BARITONE to receive a comprehensive health assessment and you would like to receive a response from the minister to this request;
  • I would like the committee to investigate the status of the Mefloquine help line;

The Committee replied on the 28th February 2020:

22. Mefloquine Dispatches: Mil Mi-24, 27th March 1997

If you or someone you know needs help, please phone Lifeline on 131 114, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.

21. Mefloquine Dispatches: Mindfulness, 5th December 2019

If you or someone you know needs help, please phone Lifeline on 131 114, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.

20. Mefloquine Dispatches: 1800 MEFLOQUINE, 10th May 2019

If you or someone you know needs help, please phone Lifeline on 131 114, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.

19. Mefloquine Dispatches: Lord Dannatt, 28th November 2019

Over the weekend I come across a story from Britain.

Lord Dannatt, who was chief of the general staff in the UK between 2006 and 2009, warns of a suicide epidemic amongst veterans during a visit to the Portsmouth-based military support group Forgotten Veterans UK.

During his visit he talks about the cost effectiveness of the work being undertaken by the charity as well as  how the government of the day and charities should be doing more. Via The News. Former British Army boss brands UK’s veteran suicide crisis the ‘epidemic of our time’. Excerpt:

Britain’s veteran suicide crisis has been branded part of the ‘epidemic of our time’ by the former head of the British Army, who admitted more needs to be done to stop traumatised troops from killing themselves.

General Lord Richard Dannatt admitted he was appalled by the number of people taking their lives in the UK and described the situation as a ‘tragedy’.

Lord Dannatt has come up on my radar previously. Not because he took mefloquine but because he refused it on health grounds. Via The Guardian. Ex-army chief apologises to troops over anti-malaria drug. Excerpt:

Lord Dannatt, who was chief of the general staff between 2006 and 2009, told BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire programme he would not take the drug because of his son’s experience with it.

Dannatt said his son Bertie had suffered mental health problems after taking two doses of Lariam before visiting Africa in the late 1990s. He was not in the armed forces at the time but had been prescribed the drug by his father’s army doctor.

He is currently the highest ranking officer on record to refuse mefloquine. Mefloquine is a drug that is known to increase the chance of suicide amongst veterans.

Oh, the hypocrisy of old Generals.

191128_Image_LDannatt

Picture: Habibur Rahman (via The News)

 

If you or someone you know needs help, please phone Lifeline on 131 114, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.

 

18. Mefloquine Dispatches: Royal Commission, 2020

If you or someone you know needs help, please phone Lifeline on 131 114, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.

16. Mefloquine Dispatches: Caravaggio, October 2012

It is 2012.

I am starting to get noticeably sick but I don’t know what from. Not all the physical symptoms have arrived. My tinnitus was always present but mild. I put the vertigo down to heat, bad ankles or alcohol. My teeth and gums are still good. My face hasn’t gone red as yet. The fine tremor in my hands hasn’t started. I could develop epilepsy. A former CO tells me I might have brain damage. All in my future.

In 2012 the black dog never goes away. It has been with me for a decade or more. It was accepted by the Army although they blame me for its occurrence. Over the years my family has become inured to its silent damage. My marriage hasn’t collapsed but the writing is on the wall.

I am watching the new Simon Schama series the Power of Art. We get to the episode dedicated to the life and works of Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio.

I don’t know the first thing about Caravaggio. Some people are turned away from him. He is unstable yet he has a power to turn art into majesty. He pioneers the art form of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and shadow. He is constantly in trouble. He drinks too much, prefers to sleep in cheap rooms and hang out with his cronies, who are little more than local bully-boys.

His art reeks of the dirt, sweat and blood of everyday life. In Young Sick Bacchus he makes God human. The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew is portrayed as the brutal murder it would have been. The victim lying on the floor on the cusp of shadows, his assailant highlighted with blade in hand ready to finish the killing. It’s all too real for the Catholic Church.

Caravaggio kills a man in 1606 in a duel but it is actually little more than a cold blooded murder. He is exiled and tries to paint his way out of trouble. In a cruel twist of fate he is pardoned but imprisoned on his way home. He gets out of his prison but misses his boat. He dies walking back to Rome with the painting of David with the Head of Goliath. It is a gift for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Prince of the Catholic Church who has pardoned him.

I am captured by this painting. Caravaggio is Goliath. He has painted himself as a villain. The young David is surrounded by light. I finally get art because I see an artist I understand. I totally get Caravaggio. It helps explain what is going wrong in my head.

Caravaggio’s descent into madness mirrors my own. I only wish I was so talented, yet I feel like Goliath in his painting.

As Simon Schama noted in his documentary:

In Caravaggio’s time it was believed that artists were given their talent by God to bring beauty to the world and to put mortal creatures in touch with their higher selves or souls. Caravaggio never did anything the way it was supposed to be done.

In this painting of the victory of virtue over evil it’s supposed to be David who is the centre of attention, but have you ever seen a less jubilant victory? On his sword is inscribed “Humilitus Occideit Superbium”, that is, humility conquers pride. This is the battle that has been fought out inside Caravaggio’s head between the two sides of the painter that are portrayed here.

For me the power of Caravaggio’s art is the power of truth, not least about ourselves. If we are ever to hope for redemption we have to begin with the recognition that in all of us the Goliath competes with the David.”

1210_DavidWithTheHeadOfGoliath

Image: David with the Head of Goliath (1601)