NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. - When Tony Spiess came back from Canada's peacekeeping mission in Croatia in 1993, he came back with a lot of baggage.
He'd borne witness to genocide and hatred, and ultimately ended up in a fire fight with heavily armed Croatian troops in the battle of Medak Pocket. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress and didn't find much in the way of help.
"Coming home from Croatia, there was absolutely nothing. I was fighting, and then a week later I was walking the streets of Vancouver," said Spiess, who was a member of the Seaforth Highlanders.
"We're talking experiencing and witnessing and fighting genocide, ethnic cleansing and all this stuff, and a week later, here I am walking the streets. And not just me, I'm talking about a battalion of men."
Then, when he left the forces in 1997, there were not a lot of job postings for machine gunners. He didn't know what to do next.
Spiess came across the Veterans Transition Program, funded by the Royal Canadian Legion with help from the University of British Columbia. Through the intensive program aimed at reintegrating soldiers into civilian life, he began to deal with his psychological scars and set off on a new life outside the military.
Now 40 and a professional firefighter, Spiess was there on Saturday when ground was broken for Honour House, a unique transition house that will offer respite and help for soldiers and first-responders such as police, firefighters and paramedics.
"It was just fantastic to actually walk through the house and see it and know a lot of soldiers and first-responders are going to be using this and a lot of families are going to benefit," he said afterwards.
The 10-bedroom, 10-bath home in New Westminster will undergo a major renovation in the next few months to become a first-of-its-kind retreat.
Honour House has been described as a Ronald McDonald House for soldiers and first-responders. They and their families will be able to stay free in the home while they or a member of their families are seeking medical or psychological treatment.
And the Veterans Transition Program, the intensive 14-day program that helped Spiess get back on his feet, will be run out of Honour House.
The multimillion-dollar project has received no public funding. Rather, it is the work of former soldiers, legion members, the area business community and a very determined former member of the Vancouver Parks Board, who admits he's "never been involved with the military. The closest I've come is Cub Scouts."
Allan De Genova said he was inspired by the story of Trevor Greene, a soldier who was severely injured in an axe attack while meeting with villagers in Afghanistan.
De Genova, now president of the Honour House Society, gathered an impressive group of businessmen, organizers, and other professionals.
About $2 million in cash was raised, along with in-kind donations from British Columbia's business world, in particular the construction industry
A week ago, they secured the $2.3 million property. The house should open its doors by Remembrance Day, Nov. 11.
"This is a way that we can say thank you," De Genova said.
The Canadian Forces brass wasn't keen at first about the private project, but De Genova has since signed on retired Gen. Rick Hillier and Rear Adm. Tyrone Pile, commander of the Canadian navy's Pacific fleet, who is expected to attend the Saturday ceremony.
There is a better acceptance within the military now that soldiers need help with "war-related stress injuries," said Dr. Marvin Westwood, a professor of psychology at UBC and director of the transition program.
Fifteen to 20 soldiers a year have gone through the program every year for the past decade. It aims to help them set new life goals and career plans, and teaches them skills to help them reconnect with their families and children.
There are professional counsellors, a psychologist and a physician available to the house residents, but the core of the program is peer-to-peer.
"What's unique about it is it's soldiers helping soldiers," Westwood said.
Spiess, the former alumnus with the program, is now part of the team helping others.
"They all deal with very dangerous, extremely dangerous work, and it's very traumatic work. And it's also not the type where you can just leave it at work. You take it home with you. It's almost impossible not to," he said of the soldiers, police, firefighters and others who will stay at Honour House.
"It's important that we do what we can for these guys."
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