The Guyana Defence Force (GDF) has been unable to say why the nine soldiers who were injured in an explosion at an ammunition depot almost 17 years ago have not received their compensation as yet or what is their status.
The “forgotten” Camp Groomes soldiers said that they are pleading with President David Granger, who is also Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to look into their compensation. They said the only thing left to do is to protest for their compensation and benefits.
Four of the nine officers, who were scarred in the explosion on December 18, 2000, which claimed the lives of three of their colleagues, related to Stabroek News recently that they were fed up of the pussyfooting by the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), and the government by extension.
While a Commission of Inquiry (COI) was held last year into the conditions of ex-servicemen, the former soldiers related that they were told that they would’ve been contacted at least three weeks after its completion. More than a year has passed and the men are yet to be communicated with on the government’s position.
Stabroek News contacted the Guyana Defence Force last week and was directed to Major Earl Edghill, who is in charge of the public relations department. Edghill related Stabroek News that he was unaware of the current status of the issue since it has not been brought up in years and he would gather the information and release a statement later in the day. However, this was not done.
Stabroek News contacted GDF Chief of Staff, Brigadier Patrick West and was told that all information coming out of the Force must be transmitted through Edghill. Stabroek News then subsequently called Edghill several times and was told, late that day that he was unable to get the information and as such would not be issuing a statement and to call back later. However, multiple calls to Edghill’s phone have since gone unanswered.
Recalling the night of the incident on the Soesdyke-Linden Highway which has left the soldiers physically, emotionally and mentally scarred, Winston Wade, said that he had gone to sleep when he woke up to fire and explosions surrounding him.
“I felt like I was being shocked on the bed and when I opened my eyes I saw the entire place on fire. The next thing I know is I fly up in the air from the explosion just like in the movies and I land down back between some mines and hit my head,” the still-affected Wade, recalled to Stabroek News.
Wade said that after he fully realized what was happening he got up, ignored his two broken hands, burns about his body and darted towards the fence. “I got up back and started running and I ran to the fence and jumped over it,” he said.
Besides his many physical injuries, Wade explain-ed that he was mentally and emotionally tormented most nights by his memories. The man said that he would have nightmares almost every night and would still have fear induced in him when he hears firecrackers and other explosions around the Christmas season.
Another, Samuel Archer, said he felt as if he was in a war with all of the explosions and rounds that were going on.
“I got up and realized that I was in an explosion and I got up right away and run to this fence that was about 14 feet high and I jump up on it and when I reach the top another big explosion come and pitch me over the fence,” Archer said.
After been knocked off the fence, Archer said he quickly got up and started running towards the gate where he saw a few of his colleagues. The men gathered and said they ran some six miles until they were safe from the ongoing explosions. “…While you running they got bombs, and what’s not dropping next to you going off,” he added.
He recalled that after they were taken to safety he does not remember much since he was in and out of consciousness because of the immense pain he was feeling. “I suffer. I suffer for years. The amount of times I get blackout and wake up back because of the pain I can’t even count,” he added.
Even though it has been nearly 17 years since the tragedy occurred, the soldiers related that their lives have only taken a turn for the worse since they have not been adequately compensated for the incident.
“It’s not like we were on the streets or anywhere else when this thing happened. We were all on duty and it was not our fault. I joined the army at the age of 18 and all my limbs were intact and a day like today I can’t do anything for myself and we are not getting help from anywhere,” Colwyn Lewis, one of the surviving ranks said.
Lewis said that he along with the other eight survivors are pleading with the government to “properly look into the matter” since they have been unable to find a job since the incident. The men explained that they were deemed “medically unfit” in 2013 by the GDF and as such, have been only getting pension from the National Insurance Scheme, which they say is not enough for them to survive on. Since they have not been able to find jobs, the men related that they have to live at the mercy of their families.
Archer explained that often times he tries to take up other means of earning money but whenever he puts his body through stress he gets sick again and would usually have to leave the job.
“I need my medical and at least some kind of compensation. A suitable figure that I could survive on and I prefer it all one time because I don’t want to be tied up back with the GDF,” he said, while pointing out that the men are all of the opinion that the GDF does not like them, based on the “Ill reception” they receive every time they visit Camp Ayanganna.
“Every time we go there is headaches we does get because of what they put us through. We can see that they don’t care about us…,” Wade said.
Lewis also explained that he was once scheduled to meet with the President last year but was again turned back when he showed up at the Ministry of the Presidency. The men related that all of their attempts to begin conversations with the relevant authority, inquiring about the next step, have been futile and they are “fed up.”
“[Then President] Bharrat Jagdeo didn’t have time with us. He took the papers and threw it behind his back, and we are pleading with Mr. Granger to look into we thing them more serious because we hurt more bad than anyone else, and we ain’t getting nothing, nothing at all from the government,” Archer said, while adding that they are not accepting the excuse which they keep receiving.
The men explained that if contact is not made with them soon they will take up their placards and protest in front of the Ministry of the Presidency, for the grave injustice which is being served to them.
“We looking hard and we will keep fighting hard to get what we have to. It hurts my heart to know that all of these years have gone by and we are still yet to receive anything and it hurts my heart to know how we are being treated by the GDF and the government that we served for years,” Lewis said.
“You know they see us and we are looking strong and alive but if we only take off our clothes and you see our scars and you actually see what’s going on with us on a daily basis and the struggles we have, they’d understand but no one talks to us and tries to see what we are going through every day,” Wade said.
In February 2014, the GDF had expressed regret for the delay in the payment of benefits to the survivors.
A release from the army had said that the GDF noted an article in the Kaieteur News titled, “Camp Groomes survivors still await word on meaningful compensation,” and wished “to assure the claimants that their benefits are forthcoming.”
A proposal for the injured soldiers to be paid benefits as if they had already retired was approved by the Defence Board, however, a re-computation resulting in improved benefits for them, was currently being verified to ensure payment, shortly. “The further amendments, which were necessary to give them more money, resulted in the delay. Their benefits when paid will be effective from 2014-01-01,” the release had stated.
The Guyana Defence Force regretted the inconvenience caused due to the delay and said that it will seek to make any interventions to ensure a speedy conclusion of this matter. “The Force wishes to assure the soldiers that it values the contributions which they have made and remains committed to its serving and past members,” the release had concluded.
However, since then, no headway has been made with getting the survivors or the families of the three soldiers who died compensation.
Along with Archer, Wade, Lewis and Ross; Wendell Cort, Delroy Hudson, Curtis Samuels, Cecil Ault and Kerwayne Wilson were also injured. However, according to Wade, they were unable to locate the other five men, who all suffered equally severe injuries.