The Quiet Fight: Retired Warrant Officer Terri Orser

November 6, 2007 by Natalie Salat

ILLUSTRATION: SHARIF TARABAY

ILLUSTRATION: SHARIF TARABAY

Retired Warrant Officer Terri Orser.

“I didn’t tell anybody–for a long time. I was diagnosed way back when it was so taboo…. But I had it before that. I just didn’t know it.”

As Terri Orser talks about getting diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the former warrant officer fiddles with a coaster and stares out the window. The lunchtime crowd is noisy at Mulligan’s Bar and Grill in her town of Sooke, B.C., but Orser is having a relatively good day; she can handle this. Other days, though, “it could be an ‘I don’t want to open the curtains’ day.”

In January, Orser was issued her release papers from the Canadian Forces. “It wasn’t my choice to get out. I had to, for medical reasons.” It wasn’t just her operational stress injury (OSI) that led to her release, but also physical injuries that the sports fanatic had sustained during her service in Canada. “I’m on arthritis pills. If I don’t take those, I’m wrecked. But if I do (take them), my stomach hurts.”

Orser was diagnosed with PTSD in 1999, but even after that, she put on a brave face. “In the military, I was able to control my emotions. I was a warrant officer, for crying out loud. I had a successful career…. Now, somebody says something and I start bawling and think, ‘God, what happened?'”

* * *

For better and for worse, Orser chose the military as her career after she finished high school in Greater Vancouver. “I loved the training exercises. I loved the combats, everything that goes along with military…. I loved the camaraderie.” She joined the reserves, with the Royal Westminster Regiment, in 1980. In 1984 she transferred to the regular force. Now, 20-some years later, she is going through the often-difficult transition to civilian life. “It’s so different.”

“Being a clerk my whole career, I’ve taken care of everybody else. Now, when it comes to taking care of me, it’s like, ‘Aghhh, I’m not used to this!'” The paperwork alone has been overwhelming. “I’ve been fighting to get my (CF) pension cheque, my B.C. Health Services Card, my public service card, my Veterans Affairs (health identification) card.”

Another big issue has been her years-long wait for knee surgery. For more than two years, Orser was on the waiting list for surgery through the Canadian Forces Health Services. Now that she’s been released, she no longer knows where she stands–and whether she’ll have to be at the bottom of the civilian waiting list.

Orser–the secretary for Sooke Branch as well as South Vancouver Island Zone–has sought help from The Royal Canadian Legion’s service bureau network in obtaining services and benefits from VAC. Even with that assistance, however, she says the transition process for CF members being medically released with OSIs could be improved. “There should be somebody that’s helping us out with this stuff. You can only do so much, and you give up easier than you normally would.You have seven bad days, and one good day to try to get everything done–and (so) you don’t.”

Darragh Mogan, executive director of VAC’s program and service modernization task force, acknowledges there are hiccups in the transition process, but says VAC staff across Canada are working to develop a seamless system of care with case managers from the Department of National Defence and at CF bases. “That’s human beings learning to work together from organizations that have very different cultures.” He notes that the minister of National Defence has committed to providing Veterans Affairs with all of the data that privacy laws will allow at least six to eight months before a CF member is medically released, “so we’re ready and can work with their case manager. That will make all the difference. It really will.”

* * *

Although not the only kind of operational stress injury, PTSD is one of the most common. Of the 10,000 VAC clients who are receiving disability benefits for a psychiatric condition, nearly 6,500 suffer from it.

Diagnosing this debilitating condition can be tricky, and it often doesn’t manifest until years after a traumatic event. “You don’t always have (symptoms of) PTSD,” notes Orser. “Something’ll trigger it. If somebody yells at me….” Her voice trails off. “I don’t know all the triggers yet, but I know if I’m upset, it triggers it. And then I’m a mess.”

It wasn’t just one thing that caused Orser’s OSI, but a number of things that built up over the years.

The first time the veteran began to exhibit symptoms of operational stress was in 1991, when she returned from duty in the Gulf War after a couple of months–much earlier than anticipated. “I was very disillusioned when they sent us back to Canada and we were supposed to stay and help,” she says. “I was so disillusioned I was going to quit the military.”

She also felt isolated from family and friends. “When you come home, that’s when it’s not normal. You’ve changed.” She gives an example. “I was sitting with my sister and her boyfriend and a couple of other people… They were going on about ‘our government.’ I just shut up and drank my beer. Eventually, I couldn’t stand (their complaining) anymore. I said, ‘Would you guys just shut up?'”

She was having trouble sleeping, too, but didn’t think much about it then.

Orser’s next tour was in the troubled former Yugoslavia. She deployed with the Third Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry for six months in 1992 and then again between 1993 and 1994. Her experiences there were tough, and not just because of the war. “There’s only a couple of people I can really talk to about it,” she says. One of them is a friend from Comox, B.C. “We were both on the same tour, both the only females in our company… So we have very similar stories.” Orser does not want to elaborate, but says some of those stories are “brutal.” With a rueful smile, she observes, “If you want to stay in (the military) and survive, then you have to put up with some of the s–t, yeah, totally. It comes from everywhere, but it’s really harsh when it’s your own comrades, your own buddies.” She corrects herself. “We wouldn’t be buddies, then, would we?”

To make matters worse, when Orser came back from the Balkans, she didn’t have a battalion to go back to. Third Battalion of the PPCLI was being converted to a 10/90 Total Force Battalion and its members dispersed to other units. “So we come back and there was no debrief. It was just, ‘You’re posted here. Go to the base and get your stuff.'”

In 1996, Orser relocated to South Africa to serve as the Canadian Defence Adviser’s Assistant at the Canadian High Commission. Although she enjoyed many things about her three years in Africa, Orser was excited about the prospect of returning to Canada and getting back into uniform.

She didn’t anticipate how she would react. “I put my boots on and I started shaking when I was tying my shoelaces. ‘Holy crap, what’s this?'” As time went on, Orser continued to have trouble sleeping–alternating between sleeplessness and nightmares. Finally, she went to see a doctor.

“She recognized something was wrong and eventually I was diagnosed (with PTSD). I kept saying, ‘I do not have PTSD. I don’t. I’m quite fine.'” It took Orser a long time to admit it, “because it was not accepted.” Although she kept it quiet, she did give counselling a try. That didn’t last long. Unfortunately, the knowledge about PTSD and how to treat it was not very advanced back then. And, says Orser, she didn’t feel like reliving her experiences with someone “who’s never been there.”

* * *

Fortunately, things have improved over the last decade. The dearth of support for people with OSIs garnered considerable attention during the 1990s thanks to inquiries such as the Department of National Defence Croatia Board of Inquiry, the efforts of the DND ombudsman and the public struggle of retired general Roméo Dallaire, who has battled with PTSD since serving in Rwanda.

As a result, VAC and DND have jointly developed a web of programs, services and dedicated clinics available to CF members and veterans who have psychological injuries.

The departments–alongside veterans groups such as the Legion–are continuing to work together to expand that network of care. Since 2001, VAC has established five OSI clinics nationwide and DND has set up five Operational Trauma and Stress Support Centres; Mogan says five more centres will be established in the near future.

The departments’ joint mental health strategy also includes research and a continuing education program for mental health professionals; this is critical, as CF medical staff have identified that many civilian psychologists and psychiatrists lack the necessary expertise in assessing and treating people with a military background.

After all, military people have specific needs. “With this population, we’re talking about repeated traumas, multiple traumas, so right there, there’s a level of complexity we have to deal with,” notes Lina Carrese, manager of the expertise sector of the National Centre for OSIs at Ste-Anne’s Hospital near Montreal. Adapting to civilian life can also be difficult. “If you’ve spent 20 years in the military, you’re used to functioning within that group. Another big issue is the whole loss of their military career at an early age.”

Mogan notes that the New Veterans Charter, which came into effect in April 2006, has been providing rehabilitation support to more than 1,200 CF veterans. “We were hoping that we would have people coming back to us who had left the military (and) who were having trouble making a transition to civilian life.” He estimates that around 80 per cent of those people have been out of the military for more than five years. “A high proportion…are receiving support for OSIs.”

Another VAC-DND collaboration that has recently expanded is the Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS) program, which provides private and confidential peer support. “Our job is to listen, basically assess what’s happening and link these folks with the proper medical professionals out there,” explains Shawn Hearn, a peer support co-ordinator in St. John’s, Nfld. The former sniper, who served in the Balkans, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2000. “I can sit across from an individual and just understand where they’ve been.” Across Canada, there are more than 14 peer support co-ordinators. Hearn is in touch with around 145 clients on the Rock, either by phone or in person.

Although there is still a stigma attached to mental health issues, he believes the military community is much more accepting and aware of OSIs. “I think Veterans Affairs and DND are doing a good job. We’ve come a long ways, but I will say that we have a ways to go and that we need to continue to provide support to the veterans, the serving member and their families. The problem, definitely, hasn’t gone away.”

The CF has taken steps to prevent serving members from developing OSIs through pre-deployment training and post-deployment “decompression” sessions. However, with the thousands of soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan and other dangerous areas, observers say it is inevitable that the number of members with OSIs will increase.

Dominion Command Service Bureau Director Pierre Allard comments, “I don’t think anybody anticipated what would happen in Afghanistan, nor would they be expected to. We were lucky that OSISS was there. Had OSISS not been there, it would have had to be invented. And OSISS was quick to move into peer support for families and bereavement support.”

As director of The Centre for the Support of Injured and Retired Members and their Families, Lieutenant-Colonel Gerry Blais oversees the OSISS program. He observes that the centre “reacts as the need increases” to add resources to the various branches of the peer support network. “The staff has more than doubled in size in the last year, as a matter of fact.” One of the major recruiting drives this summer was for family peer support co-ordinators.

For Liz Atkins, a family peer support co-ordinator at the Edmonton Garrison, the addition of more people like herself couldn’t have come any sooner. “At the support group level, last year I had between six and 10 (spouses) coming. I now have enough that I need to start two support groups, and that’s just happened over the last little while. I’m still getting (clients) from the 90s.”

* * *

Terri Orser is taking steps to improve her ratio of good to bad days. Not only is she seeking one-on-one counselling, but she has decided to participate in the Canadian Military and Veterans Transition Program, run by B.C./Yukon Command of the Legion.

This group-based program, spearheaded by First Vice Dave Sinclair, is designed to help CF members adjust to civilian life as well as deal with any disturbing events they had lived through. “We know there are veterans out there suffering with stress injuries,” says Sinclair. “This program is available to them for free.”

There are three clinics across B.C.–in the Victoria area, in Vancouver and in the Okanagan/Kootenays–and they are led by mental health professionals affiliated with the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia. Each group also includes two peer support workers who have been through the program themselves.

Sinclair emphasizes that the six-week-long clinic is meant to complement the transition services available from DND and VAC. A long-time CF member, he went through an entire clinic to see what it was like. He was thrilled with the results. “The people I saw going in with me, and the people I saw coming out, are different people.”

Sinclair, who enlisted Orser to be a member of his military services and associations committee, has been encouraging her to attend the clinic for a long time. She finally agreed to do it this fall. “I’d been putting it off for a while,” acknowledges Orser, “but I thought I’d give it a shot. Can’t hurt.”

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