This is a personal account from Canadian veteran Dave Bona, who served in the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia 1992-93, during the events that became known as the Somalia Affair, and later in Rwanda. Dave’s compelling account describes his experiences of mefloquine toxicity while serving on military deployments and after returning home, PTSD and efforts to receive medical help despite lack of recognition and support.
“Anger, random periods of uncontrollable anger, so angry I could not think straight. Sometimes over the littlest things. I would feel so black, just ready to explode. The depression started to take over – I would bounce between anger and being so depressed that I would sometimes catch myself holding my rifle in my hands, just thinking how easy it would be …”
Dave’s experiences are very common and will be instantly recognisable to other mefloquine veterans: psychiatric symptoms that are frequently misdiagnosed as PTSD, treatment-resistant depression & anxiety, neurological symptoms including tinnitus (ringing in the ears), dizziness, vertigo, impaired memory & concentration, and the impact on his lifestyle and relationships. After many years he finally received support from a health professional who was able to diagnose and treat him for his mefloquine-induced acquired brain injury.
This post should be compulsory reading for other mefloquine veterans, friends & family, researchers, and the small but growing community of health professionals willing to learn and help.
The first day I took mefloquine for Somalia, in 1992, I almost immediately felt sick. I had my first seizure that night. My vision would go black and I would see stars, I would feel disoriented and dizzy after. This would happen initially only on mefloquine days, eventually they would occur randomly the rest of the time – lying down, standing in line at super market, sitting at the supper table.
The frequency of the seizures was inconsistent, one or two per week, or one or four per month.
I went in the next morning to talk to the medics about it, but overheard a discussion going on about those not taking mefloquine will not be deployed. So, I turned around and walked out. I have continued to have these mini seizures since. The last one was about three years ago.
Not sleeping was a constant companion. I thought it was the heat, but in retrospect, it probably was the mefloquine.
The ringing in my ears started after a few weeks of starting mefloquine. The ringing would randomly start and top. Sometimes happening concurrently with the seizures or while driving, laying down or standing in a line at supermarket. I could feel myself changing. My brain becoming more muddled and anger starting to creep in. Throughout the tour of Somalia, the paranoia and anxiety was building. It sucked running convoys out of Mogadishu, I started to stash beer in the grizzly to help with sleeping.
The dreams, interesting nights … try not to sleep on mefloquine nights. Dreams were quite vivid, almost like they were actually happening.
My big Somalia mefloquine related incident occurred towards the end of the tour. I woke up in middle of the night walking across the compound with my rifle. I was bare foot and in just my shorts. I remember that I was thinking I was going to shoot someone. Not sure who, but that was what was in my mind.
My big Somalia mefloquine related incident occurred towards the end of the tour. I woke up in middle of the night walking across the compound with my rifle. I was bare foot and in just my shorts. I remember that I was thinking I was going to shoot someone. Not sure who, but that was what was in my mind. Then, the next day, as I was cleaning my rifle, I cleared it and a round went skittering across floor boards of tent. The rifle did not have a round up the spout when I went to bed the night before – when I went to bed, that rifle was cleared. I have no memory of waking up in the night and loading my rifle.
The paranoia was building throughout the tour. I ran convoys and patrols through the same areas but as the tour progressed, I started thinking that there was an ambush waiting behind every bush or that every disturbance in the road contained a mine. As a result, I started to feel quite ashamed of myself, paratroopers are not supposed to fear anything. I felt so wound up at times – it was quite tense. Alcohol became my cure all.
I was slowly developing a hatred for Somalis. Just got tired of them fucking us over and trying to rob us every chance they got. We started booby trapping stuff in the compound just to discourage them. One night we put a trip flare under a jerry can left in the open in our compound – that night it went off. We did not catch the individual, but the next morning as I was on sentry at the gate, this Somali hobbled up asking for help – he had magnesium burnt into the back of his calf, right at the level of the bottom of a jerry can. My response was quite startling as I look back on it. I basically told him to go fuck himself and get himself to the hospital. I sent him on his way, never felt any remorse what so ever at the time. It wasn’t until years later, when I think about the incident, that I think “holy crap, that is not me.” So callous and cold.
Rwanda – trauma, trauma, trauma …
Again, the first day I took the mefloquine pill, I had a seizure, felt sick and did not bother sleeping – I just drank coffee that night. The sleep issues continued and I started to have serious drinking issues. I just seemed to have lost my ability to drink alcohol normally in Somalia. Not sure if that was the trauma stuff or mefloquine. Throughout deployment, there were daily trauma incidents, two, three, four or more some days. Not sure what to say about that. It sucked. To this day I am haunted by blown up little black kids.
Insomnia – I did not sleep for first two weeks in Rwanda. I used to do sentry duty all night and then volunteer the next morning to drive the MLVW to Kigali to pick up supplies, then go back on sentry upon return that night. I always volunteered to do stuff to avoid going to bed. I figured I was just going to not sleep because every time I closed my eyes I saw dead people and dogs walking off, carrying dead babies. This would flash like a movie screen and the only thing that seemed to stop it or slow it down was getting drunk.
The anger was building through the tour – just losing my shit over silly things, culminating in the final incident that resulted in me choosing to stop taking mefloquine. Without informing the chain of command. I was doing security, away from camp for the water purification unit, at an old Rwandan government forces camp. The night before was one of those, ‘I had to sleep’ nights, so I got some of the local kids to grab me a case of beer.
I sat down and drank it with Renel, getting falling down drunk. The next morning while doing security, I got into a disagreement with my section commander. All that I remember was getting instantly angry. The only thought that was going through my mind was to double tap him through the center of visible mass. My hand was on my pistol grip, with thumb on safety.
I walked away. It took me an hour or so to get my shit together. What the fuck was that?!? It caused me to really question my sanity. I’m pretty sure ‘mefloquine day’ was that morning or the day before. So I stopped taking the mefloquine – just a gut feeling.
Anger, random periods of uncontrollable anger, so angry I could not think straight. Sometimes over the littlest things. I would feel so black, just ready to explode. The depression started to take over – I would bounce between anger and being so depressed that I would sometimes catch myself holding my rifle in my hands, just thinking how easy it would be …
After stopping the mefloquine upon return to Canada, I still was having insomnia issues, seizures, anger and I was easily confused. This is where I noticed the balance, dizzy and vertigo issues. For example, I went to Canada’s Wonderland Park prior to deployment. No problems. After Somalia, I could not even go on a kiddie roller coaster without puking. I visited the CN tower a few years ago – what a treat – the vertigo was too much, I was completely off balance, trying not to fall over as I was grasping the side of the building, desperately looking for something solid and still. Looking for a way to get the fuck out of there.
My life slowly unraveled. My marriage ended, my career nosedived, I started having drinking incidents that eventually resulted in a court martial and release from military (cells suck).
Alcohol was the only thing that I could use to slow my brain down so that I could sleep. So I started heavy drinking every two weeks, then progressing to weekly and after my wife left, it became daily. All I had to do was close my eyes and it was like a slightly out of focus movie of dying friends or blown up kids, with the ever present, “woulda shoulda coulda”, beating the crap out of myself.
Throughout this period, the impulse for suicide became very strong. Every time I went to kill myself though, someone stepped in and stopped me. The first two times, the Padre intercepted me in the hallway as I was heading to weapons lock up with a loaded mag in my pocket. He was not aware of what was going on, other than I was going through a rough go and he gave a fuck. It wasn’t much but a kind word and a hand on my shoulder – it was enough. Then the next time the impulse hit, I decided to go have a head on with a semi on the highway.
As I was pulling out of the parking lot, a car cut me off and beeped at me. It was two friends – they basically took me and got me drunk, but more importantly they cared about me and seemed to give a shit. Again it was enough, the depression and anger were so overpowering some days. I remember destroying every piece of furniture in my room in barracks one day, just so angry.
To this day I still have bouts of uncontrollable anger, I get confused easily – some days I should not be allowed to touch a tape measure. The seizures continued, weekly, monthly, slowly tapering off. My last one was about three years ago, around time that I started the LORETA neurofeedback therapy. The ringing in my ears is still present and would randomly start and stop, though right now, it is constant. I cannot drink regular coffee, my brain just does not function.
The balance and dizziness continues to get a bit worse though, progressing to nausea even on water slides. I cannot even go with my kids – if I try, I usually can only go once down the slide, because if I were to go a second time, I would blow chunks.
This issue caused me to not secure a job in 2009 as an Air Attack Officer, leading in the water bombers for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment. I used to judge how busy the mission was by the number of puke bags I would fill. No matter what I took or did, nothing would stop me puking. I finally pulled the pin after two and a half months and twenty pounds lighter, when the next step was to try the anti puking meds they put chemotherapy patients on.
I know I have PTSD, I do not like it, it sucks. Living with it some days is quite heart breaking. But where does the PTSD end and mefloquine toxicity begin? I experience things that normal people just cannot understand. The ability to be with a woman was something that I had to forego, every time I was just about to become intimate, imagery of blown up kids would start streaming in, erection killer. So I stayed alone – it was too embarrassing to explain why I just get up and walk out. So I just did not, ten years of ‘just did not’. The blind anger I experience, unable to calm down. It left me panting like a dog.
I avoid people and situations where I can’t run, I moved through a lot of jobs until I found ones who allowed me to be off on my own when I was having a bad day. Then even when I am on my own, I cannot think because my brain is all muddled. But I just keep busy. I developed a motto – I used to say, “keep busy or die”. The mood management was the most heart breaking. Watching my children develop coping strategies to be around me when I am off. Just makes me so sad.
People who knew me before taking mefloquine, commenting on my changes in personality when I returned home. My dad’s comment to me and other family members, that I am just the shell of the person I was before I was deployed. The mood swings were sometimes unbearable, severe depression, followed by periods were I felt almost normal, only to have an incident related to concentration or memory. Forgetting simple things, like my bank pin number or phone numbers, people telling me a series of numbers and not even remembering the first number after they said it.
So I have turned my life into a daily battle to beat it or at least make it manageable. I have tried everything to help manage it – nothing was working. My whole life became ‘symptom management and reduction’. No alcohol or drugs, avoid war movies, war novels, friends I deployed with were avoided, actually anything military avoided, avoid busy crowded places, go see lots of movies (safe place to veg out when things get to be too much while in city), decaf coffee, healthy eating, healthy relationship, exercise, try different treatments, etc.
That is, up until a few years ago, when my long time psychologist started asking me about concussions or head trauma. She mentioned a possible connection to mefloquine. She was questioning why I was not responding to treatment. The untreatable PTSD – where does the PTSD stop and the mefloquine related issues start? She also stated she had a couple other military clients with the same problem. Around this time, I started a new treatment, LORETA neurofeedback – a treatment used for people with brain injuries. Startling results, mood management improved. Concentration improved. Sense of smell returned. This just proved to me the mefloquine connection.
And here we are …