Dying to be remembered: Poisoned peacekeeper considers hunger strike

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Former Bosnian war peacekeeper Pascal Lacoste suffers from painful symptoms his doctors say is heavy metal poisoning from 14 metals, including depleted uranium. He says the government ignores him.

As a Canadian paratrooper in the former Yugoslavia, Pascal Lacoste learned to hold in his pain. But even today, sometimes the pain is just too great.

"I need someone now," he writes on his Facebook profile one summer morning, leaving his address and phone number for the world to see. "I'm half-conscious."

He gets $50 a week from the Canadian government to pay for homecare, and for the rest he must rely on his friends. "It's hard for my social life, because my friends say, 'Pascal always wants something from us.'"

He wishes it didn't have to be that way.

Lacoste, 38, suffers from debilitating nerve pain that his doctors believe is linked to heavy metal contamination incurred during his work as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia. He says he has been struggling for 12 years to get the Canadian government to recognize the same thing.

"They [the Ministry of Veterans Affairs] keep saying, prove it to us, prove it to us that all this is linked to your service," he says. "But try and find a normal citizen who has this kind of poisoning."

Lacoste says he plans to go on a hunger strike on Nov. 5 if the ministry will not compensate him and other veterans for detoxification treatments that may improve their quality of life.

"I've calculated that if I go on a hunger strike Nov. 5, I should die on Remembrance Day," Lacoste says, matter-of-factly. "I'm not scared. I'm totally at ease with that decision."

He has met twice with Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney. "I let Blaney know that I have been struggling for 12 years, and if Canada refuses to give us care, Canada has decided to let us die," says Lacoste, who believes that every Canadian peacekeeper who served in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf could have been exposed to depleted uranium and other heavy metals.

"I let him know that he could have a veteran dead on his doorstep on Remembrance Day."

Despite pressure from veterans and their families, the Canadian government has only compensated two veterans for depleted uranium exposure, one posthumously.

Lacoste served in East Timor and Bosnia throughout the 1990s. Soon after being medically repatriated from East Timor in 1999, he began to suffer tremors and weakness. "When I was in the jungle I had dengue fever and it damaged my immune system," he said. "I admit that it was very hard [for doctors and the ministry] to know what was linked to what."

He says military doctors initially told him nothing was wrong, and he was rejected by his colleagues and superior officers. "I was told, 'Lacoste, tabarnac, if you can't walk straight, get off the base."

He says a family friend who is a doctor paid for a battery of tests out of his own pocket. "He knew something was wrong when I'd gone from being an athlete to a handicapped person in the space of a few weeks." The tests found the same thing every time: Lacoste was contaminated with 14 heavy metals.

"The UN recognizes that NATO used depleted uranium-tipped missiles in Bosnia and the Serbian army used chemical weapons as part of a scorched-earth strategy," he says. "Someone also had the bright idea to put depleted-uranium armour plating on our tanks, so our vehicles were polluted from the beginning."

Depleted uranium has been used by U.S. and NATO forces in the Persian Gulf War, the Bosnian conflict and the bombing of Iraq, and its effects on health are poorly understood. In 1997, a report published by the British Ministry of Defence stipulated that exposure increased the risk of lung and brain cancers, and studies in laboratory animals have found risks of reproductive and neurological side effects. Depleted uranium has also been blamed as a cause of brain damage among Gulf War veterans, and banned in three countries. However, other studies have concluded that the health effects of exposure are negligible if not non-existent.

Lacoste, who has chronic nerve pain and has been told he is irreversibly sterile, is audibly frustrated with the debate.

"The ministry's own rules say that in case of doubt they have to decide in favour of the petitioner," he says. "But after 12 years they are continuing to demand extra proof. I just want care."

Lacoste already sold his house in Montreal and moved to a small apartment in Quebec City to finance the costly treatment plan. "I've talked to the doctors; I just need the agreement of the Canadian government."

"The treatments aren't going to be very nice, but it is either that or a slow painful death."

Lacoste says his ambition is to "be a productive citizen" if he gets his health back.

"I was married and my wife left me because she could not take care of me," he says. "I have chronic fatigue and every damn little thing makes me tired. Sometimes I have to go around in a wheelchair, and it's restricting when that happens. I can't make appointments with friends because my health is so inconsistent. I'm sick of living like an 85-year-old when I'm 38."

"Now I am a part-time photographer, and I want to be a full-time photographer," says Lacoste, who used to train paramedics before going into the army. "I had a lot of ambition and a lot of skills."

"I want two things," says Lacoste. "I want recognition from this country that this is a problem, and I want care quickly...the hunger strike is Plan B. I really hope I don't have to go to Plan B."

Ruby Pratka is a nomadic, Canadian-educated freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the Montreal Gazette, the Kelowna Daily Courier and Xtra, among others. Her suitcase is currently parked in Nimes, France.

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