11/11/2018 09:51 EST | Updated 11/11/2018 09:56 EST

Transition Program Helps Younger Veterans Shed The Trauma Of Combat

They're able to let go of some of the burden and better reintegrate into civilian life.

Veterans Transition Netword
The Veterans Transition Program helps former Canadian military members sort through their trauma and reintegrate back into civilian live.

For many Canadians, the word "veteran" conjures up the image of a retirement-age soldier, who served in the Second World War or the Korean War, often seen manning a poppy box or laying a wreath on Remembrance Day.

The reality, however, is that the majority of Canada's veteran population is much younger. According to Veterans Affairs Canada, more than 600,000 of Canada's estimated 650,000 veteran population didn't serve in either the Second World War or the Korean War.

"Their needs are different and Canadians need to be aware of that," Oliver Thorne, executive director of Veterans Transition Network (VTN), told HuffPost Canada.

The VTN has been serving those younger veterans for 20 years, helping them unpack the traumatic experiences of combat and reintegrate into civilian life with their Veterans Transition Program (VTP).

Veterans Transition Network
Graduates of the Veterans Transition Program illustrate what a group session commonly looks like.

The VTP, with retreat centres in nine provinces, has helped almost 1,000 former military members deal with the stress that comes with leaving the military, and find a new purpose in civilian life.

The program dates back to 1998, when Dr. Marv Westwood, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, met with his uncle.

A Second World War veteran, the uncle revealed he had killed a man overseas and was struggling with traumatic memories.

From there, Westwood approached some colleagues and they devised a group for Second World War and Korean veterans to talk and share stories. However, the feedback was that the program "was 50 years too late," said Thorne.

"We were given our marching orders to create a more robust program for veterans transitioning out of the military."

Watch Westwood talk about the Veterans Transition Program. Story continues below.

The VTP has evolved over time, and now consists of a 10-day retreat where small groups of veterans meet with psychologists and former program grads to unpack the traumas of service and identify areas where they need help.

"A lot of these veterans experience something they can't move beyond," said Thorne.

"If the veterans don't drop all the baggage they're dealing with, they risk going into a depression cycle, and post-depression is often suicide. With the support of the group, they say they revisit the hardest thing in their lives, but that they drop the emotional trauma baggage related to it. Instead of a movie playing in their head or a video, it's now just a photograph," Westwood said in interview with the CBC in 2015.

Tim Laidler, chair of the VTN's board of directors, told Trek Magazine last year that Canada's Second World War soldiers returned in droves, with enthusiastic crowds waiting, ready to offer jobs and support.

"Today's vets come home in small numbers every few months, without much waiting for them at all. The ones without physical injuries, and those not already diagnosed with PTSD, are expected to pick up where they left off," he said.

Thorne said the majority of participants in the VTP are working-age, with families or in long-term relationships. Many feel unfulfilled in their jobs, or under-employed, and have a hard time orienting themselves to life outside of service.

The founder of a tiny house village for veterans in Calgary shared a similar sentiment with HuffPost Canada earlier this year.

"A lot of these men and women have been living alongside their peers in barracks for a long time. When they get out they can struggle with living alone, with the isolation," said David Howard, president and co-founder of the Homes for Heroes Foundation.

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Thorne said each participant of the VTP finishes the course by coming up with their own transition plan. The VTN cross-refers participants to other agencies that can help with employment, housing, and mental health.

"We had each other's backs ... looking out for each other," said Iska S., a Reserve member of the 15th Field Artillery, who graduated from the B.C. program. "I don't have to do everything. I don't have the weight of the world on my shoulders. I've got a group, a tribe who gets me, who isn't going to judge me, and who will keep me honest."

Veterans Transition Network
Iska S. said she graduated from the VTP with significantly less burden to bear.

One big role Canadians can play to help veterans find their footing is to hire them into meaningful roles, said Thorne.

"I can really speak to the value of hiring veterans," he said, adding that they bring a skillset of discipline, strong work ethic, and concise communications skills.

"Veterans make fantastic employees."

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