WARNING: This article contains mention of suicide.
For Terri Orser, there’s no single memory that captures the horror and devastation of life in a war zone.
Orser, a 27-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, witnessed no shortage of action while serving around the world, including deployments to the Arabian Peninsula during the Gulf War and South Africa at the Canadian High Commission.
But it was the Langford resident’s time spent as a United Nations (UN) peacekeeper in the Balkans that still haunts her.
“Peacekeeping is a whole other animal,” she said. “They can do a lot of things to you and you can’t retaliate. And they can do a lot of things to each other, but there’s not much you can do about it.”
In early 1992, the United Nations Protection Force was formed after fighting erupted in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina during the split of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. It protected civilians within three special UN-protected zones and kept other militaries out. Peacekeepers from dozens of countries, including Canada, participated in the effort.
Like many Canadian soldiers sent to the region as peacekeepers, Orser found very little peace to keep when she deployed to Pakrac, Croatia. Over the course of her two deployments to the region, she not only witnessed ugly inter-ethnic conflict but the ultimate human toll of war.
“Just seeing other people suffer in other countries is enough in itself to do a number on you,” she said.
Orser said she lost colleagues to landmines while seeing others horribly maimed. What’s not often talked about, she added, are the soldiers who took their own lives. “I think one of the hardest was when a guy in my company, just a young guy, put a grenade down his flack jacket and killed himself,” she said.
While Orser said she had been ready for whatever came her way overseas, she wasn’t prepared for the internal struggles of civilian life that awaited her back home.
“What you’re not prepared for is when you come back, like from a United Nations peacekeeping mission, is to feel the feelings you feel afterwards and not knowing what to do with those feelings,” she said.
In 2000, Orser was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and continued to serve another seven years until her medical release in 2007. At the time, it wasn’t easy for Orser to come to terms with her diagnosis, let alone understand it.
“We didn’t really know what it was. We just thought we were really screwed up, which we sort of were,” she said. “Once you’re out of the military it’s difficult if you don’t want to be out of the military. You’ve lost your companionship, your camaraderie; you’ve lost your friends. There’s just no cohesiveness anymore.”
Almost 15 years after her release from the military, Orser admits that she’s still transitioning to civilian life. But she says helping other veterans is helping her. “When I became involved with the Legion, I never realized how many veterans needed assistance,” she said. “And of course, me being one of them, it made sense … from helping them I can look internally.”
Orser has dedicated countless volunteer hours and has even received the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation as well as the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work with veterans. For her service, she’s received the Bravery Bar, the UN Protection Force Medal two-tour clasp, the Special Service Medal for NATO and Peacekeeping, and Gulf War Medals for both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“Veterans are willing to put their lives on the line for everybody else. And we’ll go anywhere in the world to do that.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, call the provincial suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-suicide (1-800-784-2433), or visit crisislines.bc.ca to find local mental health and crisis resources.
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