May 21, 2018 06:33 AM
A veteran of the Minnesota Air National Guard is part of what's being called a "hidden epidemic."
Shawn Bolf, of Duluth, said he was ordered to take the antimalarial drug, mefloquine, during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 148th Fighter Wing. Now, eight years after he stopped taking the drug, he's living with serious and permanent health problems as a result.
'My daily life as I knew working is changed'
Instead of installing garage doors for his family's business like he used to, Bolf now handles the paperwork. He can't use power tools or ladders anymore because of balance and vision problems. He also said he loses feeling in his hands and feet and has trouble focusing and sleeping.
"My daily life as I knew working is changed," Bolf said.
In 2012, doctors at Mayo Clinic in Rochester gave him the answer he suspected all along.
"They concluded that all of the symptoms and trouble I'm having is from mefloquine toxicity," Bolf said.
A 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation found the Air Force now says Bolf shouldn't have been given mefloquine in the first place.
Four months before Bolf deployed to Afghanistan, the U.S. Department of Defense sounded the alarm issuing a memorandum warning about mefloquine's link to debilitating side effects, even suicide. The document also identified a different drug that should be used instead.
"We deployed our members following the most current Air Force instruction from October 2009 using the medications recommended for their personnel," 148th Medical Group Commander Colonel Clarice Konshok said.
Konshok said a majority of members in Bolf's deployment were issued mefloquine but she declined to give us an exact number. The instruction to use mefloquine she's referencing is a memorandum from the Air Force, detailing "medical logistics support."
When 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS took that explanation to the Air Force headquarters in Washington, the response was that document was an order about how much medicine to keep on hand and not a policy affecting "usage by airmen."
"Is it possible someone misinterpreted the Air Force memo?" reporter Matt Belanger asked.
"From my review, looking backwards, I don't believe so," Konshok said.
"You do realize what you're telling me contradicts the Air Force?" Belanger asked.
"What I'm telling you is from my perspective I can answer questions about what happened at the 148th," Konshok said. "When I look at what we did I stand by the fact we did what we should have done in choosing medication for this particular member and the whole unit."
Symptoms Continue, A Congressman's Reaction
Bolf said he wasn't given the chance to take the other medicine and his superiors told him if he didn't take the mefloquine he'd face disciplinary action.
"By the time I got to Bagram I was sick, like vomiting sick," Bolf said. "Almost like flu symptoms."
Even after he returned to Minnesota and stopped the pills, his symptoms continued.
"I could be standing in a conversation and find myself on the floor and I don't even know how I got there," Bolf said.
The 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation got the attention of the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Minnesota Congressman Tim Walz.
"I want them to acknowledge these are not just folks who are saying there's something wrong with them," Walz said.
After learning of the investigation, Walz sent a letter to the Department of Defense asking questions about the use of mefloquine and seeking how many service members are suffering side effects from taking it.
"It's not only possible many others would, it's probable that they will," Walz said. "We may never be able to make them whole but we have a responsibility to this warrior to make sure he or she and their family are taken care of."
Mefloquine's 'Toxic Legacy'
Dr. Remington Nevin is a Vermont-based epidemiologist who studies what he calls mefloquine's "toxic legacy."
"This is a hidden epidemic among our veterans," Nevin said.
Nevin testified before Congress about the situation and said mefloquine was given to hundreds of thousands of service members since the drug was put into use in 1989. He said his research shows mefloquine poisoning is often misdiagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
"This is a bitter pill for the military and the VA to swallow," Nevin said. "To admit that for decades we have been misdiagnosing some veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder when they actually have mefloquine poisoning this is a politically significant decision to make."
In Bolf's case, it took years for Veterans Administration doctors to conclude taking mefloquine is the cause of his lasting symptoms. And, it took even longer, until 2016 for the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify "mefloquine toxicity" in one of its decisions to increase Bolf's disability benefits.
"It's not in your head. Don't let them convince you that it is in your head," Bolf said.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked the VA how many other veterans have been diagnosed with mefloquine toxicity. A spokesperson said the agency can't say because the VA doesn't track it as a diagnosis.
"Unless there is an indication that this is a widespread problem, mefloquine-related issues will be handled on a case-by-case basis," the spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs wrote.
Nevin said tracking mefloquine cases is key to knowing the scope of the problem.
"That hasn't happened and I don't think it will happen until there's a formal acknowledgment by senior VA or military leaders that this drug is the cause of significant disability among the current generation of veterans," Nevin said.
In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration labeled mefloquine with its most serious warning. Since that year, mefloquine use in the armed forces has plummeted to just one percent.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has also filed a formal request with the Department of Defense asking how many members of the 148th Fighter Wing were given mefloquine since the military warned about its dangers in 2009. Officials said it could take more than a year to give us a response.
View a timeline of events in this investigation below.
Updated: May 21, 2018 06:33 AM
Created: May 17, 2018 11:23 AM
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