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West Shore veteran still dealing with horrors of war

Terri Orser saw so many ‘people suffering’
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Terri Orser served with the Canadian Armed Forces. (Tim Collins photo)

Tim Collins/Contributor

*Content warning: This article contains disturbing details about war.

Terri Orser was 17 years old when her sister pointed out a military recruitment ad in the paper.

It led to Orser enlisting with the Royal Westminster Regiment and, ultimately, to a decades-long career in the Royal Canadian Navy.

“I wanted to be a firefighter or work in search and rescue but, in those days, women weren’t in those trades,” said Orser.

Orser ended up in administration, but that didn’t mean she was safely desk-bound in Canada.

“My first tour was in ’91 in the Gulf War working with the One Canadian Field Hospital,” said Orser. “It was quite the experience. We’d just gotten off the bus when scud missiles were incoming, and we had to get into our ‘bunny suits’ (nuclear, biological, chemical defence suit). Welcome to Saudi Arabia.”

Her next deployment was in Yugoslavia, where she did two tours, beginning in 1992.

“I wanted to go there. I was young and in great shape and all gung ho. We wanted to do some good,” she said. But the smile faded from Orser’s face as memories rose to the surface.

“The worst thing was seeing people suffering. You have no idea. When I came back to Canada and heard people complain about politics and stuff …” she said, letting the sentence hang and shaking her head. “There was one time I just lost it. They had no idea.”

As an example, Orser recalled an event in Yugoslavia when a propane tank blew up, engulfing a soldier in flames.

“He was running around on fire, and, after, they told me that because I was a woman and had a softer voice, I should go sit with him in the hospital and tell him he’d be okay,” Orser said. “That was so hard. His ears were sort of melted to his head … Well, the smell never leaves you.”

Then there was the time that a friend of Orser’s decided that he couldn’t go on and, putting on his flak jacket, tucked a live grenade down the front and laid down.

“It blew off his arms, legs and head,” she recalled, shaking her head. “He shouldn’t have been there.”

From 1996 to 1999, Orser did a tour in South Africa.

“We saw a lot of bad stuff there,” Orser said.

“I saw a child ripped out of the arms of a woman on the street by guys in a van. She was screaming and running after it. See, they would sell the children on the open market.”

Now retired from the military, Orser was diagnosed with PTSD in 2000, but now works as the occupational stress injury representative with the Royal Canadian Legion.

“I’m better these days, but still don’t like loud noises or sitting with my back to the room. And for the longest time, I didn’t like walking on soft ground. That’s where the mines were buried.”