Grenade Accident Remembered 40 Years Later

November 18, 2014 by Sharon Adams

When Paul Wheeler and Gerry Fostaty met at a reunion in July, they threw their arms around each other and cried. They last saw each other in July of 1974, Wheeler a 17-year-old cadet instructor, Fostaty an 18-year-old platoon sergeant at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier, the summer a grenade exploded in a room full of cadets during a safety demonstration.

Wreaths are placed near a memorial rock where a plaque names the cadets who died in the 1974 explosion. [Sharon Adams]

Wreaths are placed near a memorial rock where a plaque names the cadets who died in the 1974 explosion.
Sharon Adams

Their tears were for their dead and wounded companions; for the pain of the survivors, borne mostly alone over the decades; and for their own lost youth.

It was a wet day, so an ammunition safety lecture was moved indoors. Dummy ammunition, painted blue to distinguish it from green-coloured live ammo, was handed around for about 140 cadets aged 14 and 15 to examine.

There was one green grenade in the box, but everyone assumed it was safe. No one knew that blue demonstration grenades had been transported with some live grenades, that a live grenade had been placed in the demo box.

It ended up in the hands of 14-year-old Eric Lloyd, who pulled the pin. He and five other cadets were killed and more than 50 others wounded.

In seconds­—pandemonium. Wheeler and Mark Slater were sitting on bunks at the back. Dozens of seriously injured boys were bleeding on the floor. “People dived out the windows and through the glass and rushed…to get out. The only ones left in the room were the wounded and the dead and the two of us.”

Fostaty and Sergeant Charles Gutta rushed in to help. “It was very hard,” said Gutta. “There was flesh all over the walls, cadets lying down.” Soon ambulances began rotating in, bearing stretchers away to nearby hospitals.

After pitching in with first aid, Fostaty and Wheeler were asked to identify bodies. “We certainly got older that day,” said Fostaty.

All that was brought up again this summer as the cadets met for a reunion at the base, 25 kilometres north of Quebec City. It was the 40th anniversary and one of greater significance now that National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman Gary Walbourne is looking into the nearly forgotten incident.

But the trauma was not yet over. Wheeler said cadets who stayed at camp were segregated and strictly warned not to talk to anybody—even their parents—about the incident. They were later brought individually into a room for questioning by regular forces officers conducting an inquiry.  “It was intimidating. They would take turns firing questions at us. They were really hoping to find the blame for this lay with the cadets,” said Wheeler.

“They blamed the cadets,” said Fostaty. “They blamed me. It was more of an interrogation.” Gutta found himself defending cadets, describing kit checks, contraband searches. “They were trying to blame the cadets, that they had brought the grenade onto the base at the cadet camp.”

About 10 days after the explosion, a memorial parade was held and cadets learned names of the dead: Yves Langlois and Mario Provencher, both 15, and 14-year-olds Pierre Leroux, Eric Lloyd, Othon Mangos and Michael Voisard. A few days later, summer camp ended and the boys were sent home to their different cities, different units and to parents they were forbidden to tell.

A coroner’s inquiry in 1974 blamed the forces for a “climate of negligence and carelessness.” It said Captain Jean-Claude Giroux, who was in charge of explosives at CFB Valcartier, who conducted the cadet lecture and himself was wounded, should face charges. Giroux was found not guilty in a civilian court trial in 1977.

A handful of cadet instructors and officers who were part of the Reserves at the time have received some compensation and benefits for their injuries. But the vast majority of those boys have not received so much as an apology.

As they were not serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces or part of the public service at the time, cadets were not covered by Canadian Armed Forces or Veterans Affairs Canada medical, pension and benefit programs. Parents had several years to request compensation under rules and regulations of the time, but few likely even knew of them, or made the connection between their sons’ mounting troubles and PTSD, which only began to be diagnosed by the military itself in the 1980s.

“Everyone just assumed somebody else would take care of it,” said Fostaty. “But there was nobody else. There was no counselling, no debriefing. They just let it go.” After the coroner’s inquest and civil trial, “everyone was exonerated and it just went away.”

The world moved on. More attention was paid to cadet safety. The explosives safety course was taken out of the cadet program in 1975. Many who subsequently heard of the incident dismissed it as a myth.

But it was grim reality for Wheeler and Fostaty whose dreams of military careers were over. “I went from being a good student at everything to failing courses,” said Wheeler. “I dropped out. I couldn’t sleep, kept having nightmares about what happened, and withdrew from my family. I just thought I had become a loser.” Wheeler drifted from one thing to another, eventually becoming a culinary arts instructor in Saskatchewan. Fostaty gave up military ambition and began an acting career. Both lived for decades with undiagnosed PTSD.

Then Fostaty posted a comment about the incident on a website and someone brought it to Gutta’s attention. “The post was torturous,” said Gutta. He began tracking down the cadets. “That’s when I really got wind of the bigger tragedy, the scope, how big it was. These cadets [got] no help. No help whatsoever.”

By 2008 Gutta had found enough cadets to begin holding annual commemorations at the Valcartier Summer Cadet Camp. He now regularly corresponds with 87 of the cadets, most of whom, he believes, have PTSD. He himself struggled with symptoms for years before being diagnosed and getting help. He urged many of his former charges to be assessed for PTSD. Once the former cadets began talking, some thought about an investigation, compensation for medical expenses and an apology. A few started talking about a class action suit.

By 2013, opposition politicians picked up on the situation. The New Democratic Party began pressing Defence Minister Rob Nicholson to authorize a military ombudsman’s investigation, and launched a petition in support.

The NDP petition gathered strength and in May, the ombudsman was given the go-ahead to investigate, focusing on how the cadets and their families were affected and treated by the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. Three investigators spent hours interviewing the cadets at the anniversary weekend. The report had not been made public by press time.

Gutta would like to see compensation for the injured cadets. “Some of the people, their lives were destroyed by this. They’re coming up to retirement and they have nothing.” He would like to see an exception made so Veterans Affairs Canada can take over care of those with physical and mental injuries.

Compensation claims today would be reviewed by the Canadian Forces Claims and Civil Litigation Section, and subject to federal Treasury Board review of current policies on claims and voluntary payments. Unless, of course, the ombudsman recommends special compensation and the federal government agrees to proceed.

Four years ago Wheeler was diagnosed with PTSD due to the explosion. He had always blamed himself for one cadet’s death. “He had quite a bit of shrapnel damage to his face and throat. I was trying to keep his airway open and he lost consciousness. To me it looked like he had passed on. I spent the next 35 years thinking that he had died because I wasn’t able to help him.”

What Wheeler did not know was the boy died in hospital, not in his arms. What a difference that piece of information would have made in his life. “It would be nice,” said Wheeler, “if someone in the government said, ‘Hey, we’re sorry this happened.’ And that would mean a lot.”

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