Warning: This article refers to suicide.
For Terri Orser, no memory captures the horror and devastation of life in a war zone.
A 27-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, Orser has seen action around the world, including deployments to the Arabian Peninsula during the Gulf War and to South Africa at the Canadian High Commission.
But the Langford resident still haunts her from her time as a United Nations (UN) peacekeeper in the Balkans.
“Peacekeeping is another animal entirely,” she said. “They can do a lot of things to you, and you can’t get revenge. They can do a lot of things to each other, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The UN Protection Force was established in early 1992 after fighting broke out in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the division of the former Yugoslav Republic. It protects civilians in three UN special reserves and keeps other militaries out. Peacekeepers from dozens of countries, including Canada, are involved in the effort.
Like many Canadian soldiers sent to the region as peacekeepers, Orser found little peace to keep when he deployed to Pakrak, Croatia. During her two deployments to the region, she witnessed not only ugly inter-ethnic conflict, but the eventual casualties of the war.
“Just seeing other people in other countries suffer is enough in itself to have an impact on you,” she said.
Orser said she also lost colleagues to landmines while seeing others severely maimed. What people don’t often talk about are soldiers who killed themselves, she added. “I think one of the hardest things was when a guy in my company, a young man, put a grenade in his bulletproof jacket and killed himself,” she said.
While Orser said she was ready for everything overseas, she wasn’t ready for the internal struggles of civilian life that awaited her home.
“What you’re not prepared for is when you come back, like from a UN peacekeeping mission, to feel your feelings after the fact and not know how to deal with those feelings,” she said.
Orser was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2000 and continued to serve seven years in prison until he was discharged in 2007. At the time, it wasn’t easy for Orser to accept her diagnosis, let alone explain it.
“We don’t really know what it is. We just think we’ve really screwed up and we’re kind of like,” she said. “Once you’re out of the military, it’s hard if you don’t want to. You’ve lost your company, your camaraderie; you’ve lost your friends. There’s just no cohesion.”
Nearly 15 years after her release from the military, Orser admits she is still transitioning to civilian life. But she says helping other veterans is helping her. “When I joined the Corps, I never realized how many veterans needed help,” she said. “Of course it makes sense that I’m one of them… By helping them, I can look inside.”
Orser has given countless volunteer hours and has even received the Veterans Affairs Minister’s Commendation and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work with veterans. For her service, she has received the Medal for Bravery, the United Nations Protection Forces Medal Double Ring, the NATO and Peacekeeping Special Service Medal, and the Gulf War Medal for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“Veterans are willing to risk their lives for other people. We’ll go anywhere in the world to do it.”
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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