Terri Orser first realized something was wrong when she put on her uniform combat fatigues and started to tremble.
The Colwood woman, now 49, was a career servicewoman and a sergeant. She had joined the army at 17 and spent two tours in the former Yugoslavia where shooting took place nightly. Before that, she had been in the Middle East during the first Gulf War, where sirens went off every night warning of missile attacks.
In the former Yugoslavia, members of her unit had been killed; another lost both his legs.
And on one occasion, as the only woman in the unit, Orser was ordered to sit with a badly burned cook needing evacuation after a propane explosion. (She figures the job fell to her because her comrades thought she would be more sympathetic.)
She was later deployed for a number of years to South Africa on diplomatic duty and rarely had to even wear a uniform.
But in 1999, back in Canada, Orser reached for a set of camouflage fatigues.
After putting them on, she started to shake.
"I had no idea what was going on," she said.
Back then, few people admitted to post-traumatic stress disorder. And it took time to even ask for help.
"I felt ashamed," she said.
"It was - 'How could you have PTSD?' " Orser said.
"You've been here and there, witnessed this and that, and now, you're falling apart.' "
On the job, it felt as if everybody around her was ignorant and making endless demands. After work, all she wanted to do was sleep.
She recalls sitting in a doctor's office and suddenly breaking down in tears. The doctor told her as a sergeant, she had to pull herself together. But some psychological assistance was arranged, including a three-month group session to deal with her PTSD.
But Orser was forced to retire about five years ago with the rank, and pension, of warrant officer. The transition has been difficult.
She has since lost her home and now lives and works at Cockrell House, a Colwood facility for homeless veterans supported by the Canadian Legion Foundation.
It's the only facility of its kind in Canada, offering both a place to drop in and a place to stay for up to three years for veterans having trouble making a transition. And it's supported and operated by the Legion Foundation, not the Ministry of Defence or Veterans' Affairs.
Dave Sinclair, chairman and past-president of the Legion Foundation, said Orser is far from unique.
Sinclair said many veterans dealing with PTSD can quickly fall off everybody's radar. Many of them lose contact even with those anxious to help. Too often they slip into a pattern of substance abuse and homelessness.
"We've found these people on the street; we have them living under bridges," Sinclair said. "We know that we have far more out there than we are able to help right now."
Problems are especially acute with reservists, released from military service and sent straight back to civilian life where people won't understand their experiences. And if a reservist is sent home to a small town, he may find himself the only veteran around with Afghanistan experience.
"The regular forces guy, no matter where he is stationed, there is all kinds of infrastructure around," Sinclair said. "And he has his buddies there that he can talk to. It can be immensely more difficult for the reservist when they come back."
He also said all military people making a transition to civilian life can find themselves in trouble.
Even without the added difficulty of traumatic memories, making the jump from the military to civilian life is tough.
Sinclair said the military should be preparing people at least a year prior to their retirement, with counselling and courses to prepare them for the jump.
"The biggest problem when they get out is they are not prepared for civilian life," Sinclair explained. "A lot of them just don't make it."
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