The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Mary Ann Barber

Even though I only got to spend a limited amount of time with Mary Ann I feel the time that we did spend together talking and shooting her portrait was priceless.  From the onset of meeting her I could feel the calm demeanour that flows from her personality and being.  If I was ever shot on the battlefield I feel comforted knowing that the likes of Mary Ann would be there to take care of me.  Let us take the time, read her account and share some kind words for a true hero.  Captain Mary Ann Barber who served as part of Task force Kabul and Task Force Kandahar as a Role 3 Critical Care Nurse in the Multi-National Role 3 Medical Unit.

My name is Mary Ann Barber, I am 38 years old, originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. I joined the Canadian Forces in 1997 as a Nursing Officer, and eventually specialized as Critical Care Nursing Officer. I deployed 3 times to Afghanistan, 2005 to Kabul; 2007 to the Role 3 Multi-National Medical Unit (R3 MMU) Kandahar; and again in 2008 back to the R3. 

The person I was when I went to Afghanistan never came home. 

How do you put into words what Afghanistan was to you as a Critical Care Nursing Officer?  How do you describe the greatest triumphs of your life and worst moments of your life?

Life for us at the Role 3 was different than for everyone else on tour. We saw the casualties from almost every incident that took place in southern Afghanistan, there was nowhere else to send them.  It was a constant stream of mutilated and brutally damaged bodies. 98% of our patients were Afghans, between the Afgan National Army (ANA), Afghan National Police (ANP) and local nationals, and we also provided care to the Taliban.  It was tough to look after the enemy, knowing that potentially in the bed beside them was a friend they had hurt, or worse, you went to the ramp ceremony of the colleague they had killed.

We looked after our own, our friends, our family members. There would be this collective silence and sense of apprehension as we waited for the names of the Canadian casualties to come in. We worked around the clock, without pause to ensure our patients received the highest quality of care in the worst location. We dealt with finite resources, we ran out of supplies, equipment, or the equipment broke down. Everyone worked to get us what we needed, but often times what we needed was more staff, more beds, more surgeons, more operating rooms, more blood.


Despite these limitations and challenges, we overcame these obstacles, and can successfully boast about our survival rates, about how many lives we saved. Those triumphs are real, the hearts, the minds and bodies we repaired. Every patient who lived was a success to us, and we celebrated with them.  So too was every loss, the ones we couldn’t save. Those are the ones that are the hardest to let go, to wish you could have done more, but knowing you did everything that was humanly possible at that time, in that place, but still wishing you could do more.  We held our patients when they died; no one died alone, enemy, Afghan, Coalition, Canadian. We said prayers for them, and cried for them, we cried with them, we cried with each other. We replaced the family members who should have been there to hold them when they passed. 

These triumphs and losses are now elements of who I am, these memories are now woven into my personal fabric. Afghanistan is now part of my constitution as a woman, a nurse, and a leader. I would go back tomorrow to provide care to the people there, and to take care of our own. The average Afghan was a considerate, kind and generous soul, they would give you their last morsel of food if you were their guest. It was also my greatest honour to be able to help our own soldiers in their time of need. Every medical professional I worked with over there has expressed this same sentiment. There’s a quote from Clara Barton that I have related to, it reads;

I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight,     I can stand and nurse them.”

This burden has been difficult at times to bear though, and the scars left from these experiences will stay with me for the rest of my life and my colleague’s lives.  I am trying to remember who I used to be with fondness, I still grieve the loss of who I was once, the life I once had. There is an inability now to be close with people, the walls you build to stay alive over there never really come down.  You can be surrounded by people and loved ones, and still feel a sense of lonliness. You wish you could be surrounded by those you served with, some days it seems they are the only ones who truly understand who you have become now. But when I remember the children we saved, or talk to a friend who was a patient once, those smiles, that laughter, brings a peace to your soul, and keeps you motivated and inspired to continue to provide care. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: Week of Remembrance: An Account of War by Stephen Oliver

Today on Remembrance Day we stop on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and think about all of those that have sacrificed for our freedom.  On this day I am honoured to bring you Stephen Oliver's account.  About 4 years ago Stephen transferred into the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada and lets just say he made a major impact.  Stephen's outgoing and positive attitude matched with his love of physical fitness and the experience he brought from a long life of soldiering made him a pivotal member of the regiment.  It didn't take long for us to cross paths and he's been kicking my ass ever since.  When I started this project I immediately thought of Stephen and knew that I had to get him to contribute...He grilled me about all aspects of the project and when he was satisfied with my answers he agreed to participate.  Its been some time coming but here it is!  Sergeant Stephen Oliver served in Afghanistan from April 2010 - December 2010 as part of Task Force Kandahar. 

In April 2010 I arrived in Kandahar Afghanistan as part of a five soldier Tactical Psychological Operations Team. The team had spent the prior year competing against one another for positions, training together as a team and building the individual skills we needed to step off the plane and support the Canadian mission.

Upon arrival we were attached to a Company of the US Army 82nd Airborne 2/508thoperating in the Arghandab Valley. It was there with the 82nd at Combat Outpost (COP) Ware that I first got my feet wet; a surprisingly literal statement. The terrain of the valley surrounding the COP encompassed deep rivers, lush apricot orchards and delicately milled radish fields. Every day we would conduct a patrol composed of a small number of Afghans, US Soldiers and we Canadians. Our constantly varying routes would take us through the rivers, over the walls and walking through rows of crops. I would sit and speak with the farmers, listening to their stories and often telling them ours. We would talk of the war and government, of the land and the rain, of families and home. This talk was not aimless. It was our job to shape what people thought about their government, the military and our enemies in hopes of supporting the various security and development efforts. I remember one such conversation from early in my deployment.

 We patrolled out to a nomadic village near our observation post both perched on the side of a hill. Our mission was to deal with a small crisis. The day prior a soldier was forced to kill a large dog from this village that came barrelling down upon him. Occasionally, this type of crisis mitigation was the reason for our meetings although probably not as often as many believe. Our well-armed patrol arrived among the shelters and we met the local leader. He was an old man with a long grey beard and aged face that showed many years of hard living. He invited us to sit with him in the Mosque tent, an invitation that came with a cultural catch - no footwear. My note taker, our interpreter, a US Sergeant and I considered this catch and decided that we could fight without boots should the need arise. We removed our boots and placed them neatly beside the door. A plate of dried fruit and tea promptly arrived. The old man initially refused to believe that I was also raised on a small family farm with animals and working dogs. I assumed he was wary of such coincidences with friendly strangers. Instead his stereotype of us focused on the towering cement cities not the wide Canadian landscapes. Together we drank tea, ate fruit and talked of where his country was going and how he could help guide it there.

Today I remember this conversation not because he was our enemy or our friend; he very well may have been either. I remember this conversation not because he gave us vital information or some other great military victory. I remember this conversation because it gave us each an opportunity to show respect for one another and feed a real curiosity that everyone in that tent shared. This was our job as much as fighting was our job and our team of five Canadians was really good at it.

This story and others from my time in Afghanistan will stay with me. I try to remember that as much as I arrived ready to fight in a desert only to walk through orchards it was our daily work and our conversations that were changing expectations and attitudes for everyone in that conflict. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Brett Irwin

A couple of months ago Brett contacted us via Instagram.  Immediately, Brett was keen to participate and we had several key conversations over the following months.  Finally when I found some time we were able to meet up and shoot his portrait.  Brett has to be one of the calmest most laid back sincere individuals that I have ever met.  After reading his story and the struggles he has overcome to find peace I was taken back with the success he has had.  Despite still dealing with and coming to terms with what he experienced in Afghanistan Brett is a great success story and example of courage for any and all veterans. Never give up, someone will help you!  Cpl Brett Irwin served in Afghanistan from April 2010 - November 2010 as part of Task Force Kandahar.

             I first came into contact with the Afghanistan Veterans project via Instagram and instantly wanted to be apart of this cause. I did a lot of thinking on what I wanted to say or what story I should tell to define my experience at war in Afghanistan. Should I talk about one of my gunfights with the Taliban, one of the close calls I had being ambushed and go for the glory, or maybe about being struck with Improvised Explosive Devices and seeing my friends injured and go with the gore behind war?


            None of that is really that important and I really couldn’t care less about glory or what anyone has to say about me. So, after careful consideration I have decided to talk about the greatest fight of all, and that’s the fight all combat veterans face. Coming home from war. Call it (PTSD if u want I don’t know how to define it any better than the next person).


            The challenges I faced in Afghanistan with my brothers were always manageable, we always had each other there to talk to or to confide in when the shit hit the fan. Being home is a different story. I found myself alone fighting my demands, lashing out at my family and the people who loved me the most and turning to the bottle for comfort.  Coming home from war is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It’s been four and a half years since I returned from war and there hasn’t been a day go by where I don’t think of my time there.


            My heart still jumps through my chest when I hear a loud bang, I haven’t been able to enjoy fireworks on Canada day because they bring back horrible memories, I have moments of sever anxiety that seemingly comes out of nowhere. I have been as low as a person can go to the highest of highs where I’m on top of the world and back down again all before I even have lunch. I didn’t know what was going on but I knew I needed help.


            Reaching out and admitting that I had an issue I couldn’t fix alone was the best decision I ever made. I started seeing a therapist about a year and a half after being home and it’s been a really tough road with a tremendous amount of challenges. I can say from the bottom of my heart I couldn’t have done it alone. I want all veterans to know that there is help out there if you think you need it. Don’t be ashamed of your demands because we are not alone. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Daniel Yun

A couple of Months ago Daniel reached out to me and from the get go he was extremely enthusiastic.  About a week ago I finally got to meet him in person at CFB Borden when I went to shoot his portrait for the project.  Its meeting people like Daniel that make me continue doing this project and putting the effort in to keep it going.  The level of support and willingness to help that Daniel has given me is outstanding.  For these reasons and many more I'm proud to bring you Daniel's account.  Master Corporal Daniel Yun served in Afghanistan from November 2010 - August 2011 as part of Task Force Afghanistan.

My name is Master Corporal Daniel Yun. I was an armoured reconnaissance crewman with the Queen’s York Ranger’s 1st American Regiment (RCAC). I volunteered to go to Afghanistan to gain and experience operational tempo just like every soldier, their dream is to do their real job in a combat setting. At the end of November 2010  I deployed under the 1st Battalion Royal 22nd Regiment Battle Group Roto 10 based out of CFB Valcartier, Quebec.  The time and experience I had over in Afghanistan is something that I could not compare with my regular life style back home in Canada. I took pride in serving my country and that what I was doing in Afghanistan was making a difference in the lives of Afghan’s.

Our main mission was to support the ANP (Afghanistan National Police) in mentoring the police force and other ANSF ( Afghanistan National Security Forces) so that they can carry out their duties as law enforcement officers to protect their own country.  I was based out of Forward Operating Base Walton which as is located in Kandahar City, Afghanistan. The unit I was attached to was called Regional Training Centre-Kandahar (RTC-K)  also known as “ Scorpion” which fell under the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A). I was employed as Weapon’s and Tactic’s Instructor while I worked along with my Canadian and U.S. counterparts in achieving our mission to mentor the ANP forces.

The mentoring mission team was divided into 2 teams. Tactic’s team which formed a body of combat arm’s soldier’s along with the Military Police team which formed bodies of Canadian Military Police member’s and Civilian Police (CIVPOL) unit’s from Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Toronto Police member’s. The mentoring team always remained vigilant and on guard when doing our job with the ANP forces each time. We did encounter some combatant incidents but we still carried out our mission as a team and fought through as soldier’s.

Upon my return back home to Canada in the summer of August 2011 I realized my transition home was not going to be easy.  I was still experiencing some operational stress fatigue and trying to get back into my regular daily routine and life style was not easy. There was an incident just outside of Forward Operating Base Walton on the ANP force’s camp that injured one of our leadership. It was a Captain that we worked alongside with from the Operational Mentor Liaison Team also known as OMLT. No matter what happened at the time we as soldier’s still had to persevere as we had a mission to carry on.  The one thing I will always miss about my deployment was the brotherhood and comradery that I enjoyed. The leadership from FOB Walton and along with my subordinates is something that I will always remember and carry onward in my career. We were also known as the “ Walton Wranglers” by the U.S. Forces.

I know war is not the best thing in the world and it brings sadness and pain to everyone. I have learned to be thankful for everything around me and do not take things for granted. This has made me a better person and I appreciate that I did make a difference in the lives of Afghan’s during our mission. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Cesare Ierullo

Its been about a month since my last publication but the time away has been worth while as I have a ton of new content coming your way.  I met Cesare last Monday at CFB Borden...not what its called now but whatever.  The meeting was arranged by Daniel Yun who will be featured here soon.  I was taken away by how humble they both were and the support they were willing to give towards the project.  Needless to say I'm excited to bring you Cesare's account.  Master Corporal Cesare Ierullo served in Afghanistan from April - November 2010 as part of Task Force Kandahar.

I volunteered for Afghanistan for the opportunity to do something truly significant. I hoped to gain much from the experience and I certainly did. The time I spent in Afghanistan was the high point of my life to date, nothing back home has brought me the same complex rush of emotion and adrenaline. Not a single day has passed where I don't find my mind wandering back to 2010 in Afghanistan.

Our mission in Afghanistan was that of convoy escort and our platoon was officially titled National Support Element - Force Protection Platoon. 

Nicknamed the "Road Runners" and consisting entirely of reserve Infantry & Armoured volunteers, we set out to to protect the invaluable cargo that was frequently dispatched across the province of Kandahar. We moved everything from ammunition to people, whether it was through the traffic laden, bustling Kandahar city or out in the far flung rural reaches of the province, we took much pride in the execution of our missions.

Coming home with all the experiences I brought with me made reintegrating back into my normal life before tour particularly frustrating. I left Afghanistan feeling tremendously angry and bitter about the whole affair for a variety of reasons. We had been violently ambushed with RPG's and machinegun fire and my friend Master Corporal Mark Soteroff was wounded. Another friend with the Combat Engineers Sapper Brian Collier had been killed.

As is typical with war there were moments of great dread, anxiety and doubt, fear and uncertainty but also were many moments of laughter and good times. The friendships and bonds that were forged with my peers in that country are long lasting and significant.

For what its worth, Afghanistan made me a better person and I'll always be grateful I had the opportunity to serve with such a fine platoon of soldiers.

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Amanda Diamond

I am proud to bring you our second female contributor.  Amanda's story is full of highs and lows but is more importantly a story of success.  I suggest highly suggest taking the time to read her story, her website and Facebook page. She may be able to help you as well.  Private Amanda Diamond in Afghanistan from November 2006 - August 2007 as part of Task Force Force Afghanistan and Task Force Kandahar.

Army Life, Chronic Stress and Autoimmunity. My Journey Toward Wellness. 

By Amanda Diamond 


After graduating high school in a small town in rural Ontario, I struggled with the age old question..."What am I going to do with my life?"  I had always been an over-achiever and was looking for a new challenge and a way to see the world and expand my horizons. Naturally, I decided the join the Army.  After about a year of training, I was posted to Edmonton as a Signal Operator at the Brigade Headquarters.


In November of 2006 I deployed with the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Though most of my deployment was spent in a comfy, air-conditioned headquarters building, I struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my 9 months abroad. My sleep was non existent at times and my body seemed to be rebelling against me. My digestive issues were manageable at that time, but bothersome to say the least. I was irritable, on edge and began isolating myself from my friends and fellow soldiers. I never expressed how I was feeling to anyone else. I felt that I had no reason to complain, and that I was lucky that my job was relatively easy and safe. 


By the end of my tour, I knew that this lifestyle was not for me. Though I valued everything the military had taught me, I knew I was ready to move on. My release was processed 6 months after returning home. The following year I became a mother, and not long after the birth of my daughter I began experiencing a decline in my health. After months of doctor’s appointments and numerous tests I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, an auto-immune disease that effects the lower digestive system.  


I have lived with this disease for over 4 years now. I've experienced many ups and downs and constant changes in my body. Sudden weight loss, bloating, hair loss, bleeding, and gut wrenching stomach cramps became my normal day to day life. I've tried numerous treatments, from pharmaceuticals to herbal remedies, dietary restrictions to nicotine therapy and the biggest realization I've come to is this: 


Mental stress wreaks havoc on our physical health.


Noticing this link between long term stress and my own illness led me to begin researching the topic. Many studies have been done on the topic recently, supporting the idea that stress relief techniques are vital pieces of the wellness puzzle.  Multiple studies have shown that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. Specifically, prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone. In turn, runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases. Mental health professionals dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have also noticed this link, stating that PTSD sufferers have an increased risk of developing heart disease and auto-immune disorders. 



So how do you put an end to the stress response in the body when it seems to be so deeply engrained... especially in veterans, police officers and other first responders?  


My personal experience with chronic illness has taught me that stress relief techniques are vital to both mental and physical health and wellness. Practicing meditation, yoga and breathing exercises calm the fight or flight reaction by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the body's natural relaxation response.  


For me, these techniques were the missing link on my healing journey. Since integrating them into my daily life I have noticed a marked improvement in my mood, digestion and inflammatory response. Along with proper diet and exercise, meditation and mindfulness play an important role in my balanced lifestyle. I am no longer taking any medications to manage my illness and can enjoy the quality of life I was accustomed to before getting sick. 


I now pour my energy into helping others regain their health and overcome illness through coaching support and wellness education. If you are a veteran, and are struggling with chronic health problems I want you to know that it can get better. But I assure you, the cure won't be found at the bottom of a pill bottle. Real healing starts with changing your thought processes, practicing mindfulness and learning to love yourself, flaws and all.




About the Author - Amanda Diamond 

Amanda is a Health Coach, Wellness Educator and Mother of two. She draws from her personal experience with chronic disease to inspire others to take control of their health and find balance in their lives. You can connect with Amanda on FaceBook and Twitter or by visiting her website. 






The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Scott Hahn

I have known Scotty for probably 8/9 years now and he's always been an interesting character.  Scott has always been someone who was never afraid to share an idea or not do something.  In that way he has always been an inspiration to others.  Now as a councillor for Woolwich Township Scott has taken this to the next level yet behind the scenes there has been a hidden battle most people don't have insight into.  In this way through his participation I hope Scott's story will be able to help others that may be struggling to either seek help or share their own story.  I am now honoured to share with you Scotts story, please take the time to read it.  Corporal Scott Hahn served in Afghanistan from 17 May - 15 December, 2010 as part of Task Force Kandahar.

Every soldier is different, soldiers ten feet apart from each other in a firefight will tell two different stories. I feel the most important story to tell is not of the mission, but after the mission. No soldier comes home the way they think they will.


Coming home can only be described as euphoric, after being stuck in a war torn country for seven months. All the things that were missing from daily life in Afghanistan, are all easily accessible. Running water, sleep, sex, good food, cold beer, and no fear for your life. In those first few fantastic days, a soldier’s mental health is checked by the Canadian Forces. I doubt many red flags are raised with any soldier. All the wrongs in the world are on another continent, everything in life is perfect in those first few days.


But I am not a veteran of war for a few days... I am a veteran for life.


During decompression, or re-integration into society training, I was told that I would think about my tour frequently when I returned to Canada, but after several months it would slowly sub seed. The difficulty I had was that after two years, there was rarely a moment where events of my tour were not running through my head like a permanent daydream. I would come home agitated because I had ultimately lived two full days in a nine hour work day. Nine hours physically on a job and nine hours mentally in Afghanistan. The minor stresses of daily life, the major stresses of battle and the politics of war that a soldier is subjected to, would compound on each other every day, and as you can imagine, anger was a side effect. Unfortunately, I often redirected that anger towards my wife, not physically, but verbally.


How does a soldier get over this? There is no one answer, the mind is a complex puzzle. Some simple examples could be, talking to a therapist, group therapy, peer support, taking up a hobby, drinking, drugs, suicide?  The last one is not an option for myself, life is too precious. I have tried a few ways to get over my personal struggles, some were effective, and others were not. I haven't found peace yet, but I have found ways to keep my mind busy enough that I am forced to think about other things. I am an electrical foreman at work and often have several jobs on the go that require constant attention. I started into municipal politics and the meetings and research are time consuming. I took up bow hunting for deer and moose, and I try to get out fishing a few times a year. I also have the most important part to my personal therapy, my children. How could anyone look at a child and think of war? All the innocence and joy a child has is something to truly marvel at. They are the light at the end of a very dark tunnel for myself. 


Other little things in life remind me that I am not alone and I truly have a nation behind me in support. There is a long list of kind deeds, from Canadians towards veterans, which I see daily. Support your troops magnets, a stranger buying a coffee, a family in Wellesley bought a beer for me one time, Don Cherry's constant support on Hockey Night In Canada, a firm handshake and "Thank You". This list doesn't do justice to all the unwavering support across Canada, but I feel that it should be acknowledged.


After four years, there still isn't a day where I haven't thought about Afghanistan, but I am noticing small improvements and I hope others that have any issues are finding their peace.

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Don Fraser

Its been over a week since my last update, I've been crazy busy starting work again and there has also been a family emergency so bare with me.  I have a ton of new content on its way.  And now I share with you a short account from Master Corporal Don Fraser who provided the support all the men and women in the field needed to be able to do their duty.  This is a great opportunity to recognize those that support the combat arms in all they do.  I would also like to give a shout out to Canadian Heroes who have been a giant supporter of this project which is also an organization that Don also belongs and participates. 

Master Corporal Don Fraser served in Afghanistan on rotation 5 of Task Force Kandahar 1-08 and was the Kitchen Officer of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wilson from March 08 to September 08 and is known for his ice cream runs and visits to the many Police Sub Stations, Strong Points and Security Points.  Master Corporal Fraser was awarded the task force commander's accommodation and as well as the National Support Element commander's coin for his work in and outside the FOB Master Corporal Fraser is currently still serving in Edmonton with 3 Canadian Division Support Group and dedicates his spare time to working with the Canadian Heroes Foundation with his memorial vehicle.

Master Corporal Paul Franklin with Don Fraser's Canadian Heroes Memorial Vehicle

Master Corporal Paul Franklin with Don Fraser's Canadian Heroes Memorial Vehicle

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Angela Clark

When Angela contacted me about participating I was very excited as she is our first female participant.  I was taken aback when I had the chance to read all of the blogs she wrote and posted during her tour.  They are very deep and insightful and I believe an important piece of this conflicts history as for one of the first times we are seeing a first hand account of combat from a woman's perspective.  I am honoured to be able to share with you an excerpt from her blogs.  I highly recommend you take the time after reading this except to read through the rest of her blogs. You can check them out here: . Now a JAG officer, Captain Angela Clark deployed as a corporal in the role of force protection on task force 1-08.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Boats and Burkhas

I have been keeping my day timer up to date with the events of each day. But I always struggle to fill up the small space during night shifts. We work all night until 7am, I check my email and am in bed by about 0800, sleep until 1230, eat lunch, go to the gym around 1500, maybe take another nap 1600-1700, go for dinner, go to work.

But I guess instead of writing about what has (not) been going on, I could write about some of the things I have been meaning to, but have ended up replacing with things that have happened that week.

I mentioned a couple of posts ago the stories the interpreters tell us of their life and their ambitions. A couple of weeks ago when I was on nights I spoke with Wally (good Wally) for a long time. I asked him tons of questions about life in Afghanistan and want to relate some of our conversation as best I remember it.

For example:

“Have you ever been on a boat?” I asked.

“Boat?” He seemed to be trying to place the word.

“Yes, you know, a vehicle that floats on water and you ride in?”

“Oh yes I know the word. Boat. No, I have never been on a boat. I have never seen a boat. Also, I do not know anyone who can swim.”

I spoke with him for a long time about women in Afghanistan - the conversation mainly revolved around his family’s experiences and that of his wife.

His grandfather (we’ll call him Baba Wally) is a well-known village elder who is, apparently, over six feet tall and 110 years old. He had four wives (only one is still alive now) and fifteen children. Baba Wally married his first wife as a result of a tribal blood feud. I can’t remember all of the details, but one of Baba Wally’s brothers unjustifiably murdered a man from another village. This man’s family was insulted and dishonored, so were obliged to kill Baba Wally’s brother in return. Baba Wally retaliated by murdering the dead man’s brother. This back-and-forth volley for honor would have continued until both of the families were completely decimated, but another solution was found. Baba Wally married the dead man’s sister in order to heal and unite the families who hands were already stained with each other’s blood. This woman was to become Wally’s grandmother.

Wally’s family is very strict and traditional, he explained. In Kabul, young men can date who they please, and sometimes can spend time alone with their girlfriends (!). But Kandahar is mainly the home of the Pashto. Pashtuns are the honorable warriors who formed the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen and who fostered the Taliban. Most are by no means Islamic Fundamentalists, instead all have their origins in the very important Pashto code of honor. (I will look up more on this and elaborate at a different time). 

Their views on women’s rights, or more correctly, the rights a man has over a woman, are intrinsic in these codes of honor. Wally has been working with Westerners for many years now, but his personal life is still dictated by the traditions and the family he grew up with.

His wife is his brother’s wife’s sister. It was arranged for them to be married by their parents. They had only met once before they were married, at his brother’s wedding. He said their marriage was good, though, and more sacred than most Western marriages. They tolerate each other’s bad moods like any marriage, and compromise like any marriage, but the fact that separation is not an option creates a devotion and bond much stronger than those who know deep down, “I can always get a divorce.” (Divorce is possible however, if a man requests it, not a woman, but it is dishonorable). I am sure not all arranged marriages work as well as Wally’s, but his sounds all right.

I asked him if his wife wears a burkha, and he said yes. He said they live in an apartment complex in Kandahar City and if any woman who lives inside is standing in the doorway without a burkha on and a man passes, she must run back inside and cover herself. His wife does not leave this building without his explicit permission. If he grants this, he must accompany her wherever she goes. If she wants to go see her mother and father, she must ask Wally for permission and be escorted by him to her family’s home.

Wally’s wife had a baby girl four months ago. His wife is very tired all the time, he said. Even if he is home and the baby cries, he does not help her. If the baby is up all night, Wally would not even think of getting up in his wife’s stead to rock the baby back to sleep. “That is the woman’s job and I must not interfere. But….the baby cries a lot,” he said.

Once in a while he will hold the baby and play with her. But he does not change her or wash her or make dinner so his wife can have a break. “That is not our way.” I asked him if he will try to send his daughter to school. “Well yes,” he said, “women can go to school for maybe one year to learn the Koran and learn how to be good wives.”

Wally is the one who is trying to get American citizenship so he can move to California. I mentioned to him that things are very different in California, and wondered if his wife was excited or nervous when they discuss the possible move. Education is mandatory, I explained, and women wear miniskirts and bikinis and show more skin than is hidden. I think he knows this, but is more concerned about providing a good life for his family than the cultural taboos that will be broken for him. “It is my family that is strict,” he said, “and they are why I live they way I do. But they too understand the importance of leaving Afghanistan if I can.”

MCpl Neilsen was also there and the conversation moved to how different dating is for us. Neilsen laughed and said, “I met my wife in a bar on a one night stand! Now we have been married for five years.” I told Wally I had had many boyfriends, had even been engaged once and lived with two different guys in relationships that didn’t work out. I couldn’t help wondering how Wally looked at us, and more specifically me….sitting there with all my rifle and frag vest and helmet and combats on, laughing and burping and farting like one of the boys, telling him stories about my relationships and university days and how I could do anything men were allowed to do. Was he disgusted? Curious? Fascinated?


Most likely, I think, he sees me as a separate species than an Afghan woman. I think that goes for most, if not all, Afghan men I have dealt with on KAF. I thought they wouldn’t listen to me, respect me, and maybe even hate me for being a woman and doing what I do. But I don’t think they feel this way. Most don’t act the opposite either, which is like me a little TOO much… Yes, they stare, but not the way they stare at an Afghan woman who walks by, or even a civilian woman. I think they see me more as a novelty, a curiosity. I don’t think I am seen as a woman first and foremost - I think they see me first and foremost as a soldier, the one with the rifle and pistol. Next, as a Westerner. And finally, as a woman. It is the combination of all of these that makes me a curiosity, and which allows me to get away with saying and doing things that could get an Afghan woman stoned to death.

But what of these women? What would they think of me? Would they be ashamed of me, for me, if they heard some of my stories? Would they be envious of my freedom? If they could take off their burkhas and shed Afghanistan like a skin, what parts of it would they say good riddance to and what parts would they miss?

A separate thought – after talking to Wally about his life and his wife, and picturing them moving to California, I can understand why you hear of so many immigrants whose lives end violently once they finally establish themselves in a Western nation. You hear of fathers who murder their daughters for not listening to them or heeding their culture or religion. You hear of wives murdering their husbands, and murder-suicides, and people kidnapping their children from their spouses and taking them back to their home country. It all makes much more sense after talking to Wally. Wally is a wonderful person and would do great in Canada or the US, of that I have no doubt. But what of those that want a better life, but then end up unable to adapt to the culture that inevitably influences the life they have immigrated into? Of course I believe immigrants have a right and a need to hold on to who they are at the root, but they have to be flexible and adaptable with certain manifestations of who they are. A man like Wally will have a difficult time if he tries to make his wife wear a burkha down to the beach in L.A., or if he sends his daughter to school for just a year only to learn how to please a man and a god.

Just heard three big booms, so I think we just got rocketed. Yup, the sirens are going off so I better end this. Good night all.

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Dave Gionet

This week I had the Pleasure to meet Dave Gionet and I must say he is an awesome down to earth guy.  Ever since he contacted me weeks ago I had been excited to meet him and I felt honoured that he asked me to help tell his story.  So, without adieu here is Dave's account.  He is a true Canadian Hero so please take the time to read this and send him some love via comments and likes. Master Corporal Dave Gionet served two tours in Afghanistan, from February 9 - September 7, 2005 and January 21 - August 30, 2007.

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My name is Dave Gionet and I am forty-two (42) years old come from a small town in New Brunswick called Pigeon-Hill.  I was raised by my mother Celine and my father Theophile who are currently retired and still reside in Pigeon-Hill.  I have three siblings, my sister Diane who lives in Moncton, New Brunswick and my two brothers who are fisherman, Marcel and Steve who live in Pigeon-Hill.   

I finished high school when I was twenty (20) and enrolled in college for two years taking a course to become a correctional officer, however knowing I was not completely ready I decided to pursue other options.  When I turned twenty-five (25) I decided it was time for a new journey and moved to Kitchener, Ontario where at twenty-nine (29) I joined the army.  I served twelve (12) years and did two tours in Afghanistan.  When I returned from my second tour I was medically released and retired September 1, 2013.

Here is a history of some of my encounters during my two tours.  While in Afghanistan, Kandahar, 2007 on Tuesday, March 20th, we were trying to recover a Coyote surveillance vehicle that had struck a mine.  I was the gunner of C/S 61C we were staying in the rear for security; the dog handler (Shaun Parker) and his dog (Alex) were with us. Sgt Sheldon, called for Alex and Shaun to inspect the area.  Alex smelt an IED, but de stepped on the IED before he was able to alert us.  The bomb went off, Alex was killed immediately and Shaun was very badly injured.  I was roughly 50 feet from the Bomb; the blast almost threw me off my feet, when I looked at what had happened, I couldn’t see anything with all the dust in the air.  I ran to see if everyone was okay but by then I knew it was going to be bad.  I could hear someone crying for help and when I got in the impact area, I saw Shaun in a bad position and a couple of soldiers that were confused by the blast, in a second I took charge and went to give first aide to the dog handler that was in a very bad state, to this day, it’s too hard for me to describe the details but I did succeed to open his airway until the evacuation took place about an hour later.  That was the first incident happening to me in my tour.

On April 11th, 2007 after three (3) days on an OP we were relieved by C/S 62.  On our way to our location, 62D struck an IED.  We turned down from the OP and moved to 62D location to provide security.  On the way to the IED strike, the vehicle in front of me was also hit by an IED (61B).  I immediately jumped off my coyote and went toward the crew of 61B to give first aide.  However, despite the help of my friends and me we lost two great soldiers


On June 11th, 2007 we were traveling about 40 km north of Kandahar City, when C/S 61D hit an IED.  I was the second vehicle C/S 61C in the rear, when we saw the blast we stopped and I jumped off to go provide first aide.  When I got to the vehicle I saw the crew was in very bad shape, upon investigating further I saw one of the crew was still in the vehicle it was the driver, my good friend (Caswell) however, it was too late, after we secured the location me and two more of my crew removed Caswell and put him in the helicopter for evacuation.  For the Dragoons, and myself this moment was very difficult, it was unforgettable has stayed with me.   This was the final incident for me during this tour. 

When I returned home from Afghanistan everything had changed for me and it was a very difficult process to adjust to a normal life.  I served my country and my crew to the best of my abilities, however for everything there is a price and nothing remains the same. 

Medal of Military Valour Citation:

“For extraordinary courage while under threat of fire, explosions and enemy attack during the rescue of fellow soldiers from a burning vehicle following an improvised explosion with the 2 Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, Task Force Afghanistan on 11 April 2007.”

“On 11 April 2007, Private Dolmovic and Corporal Gionet saved the live of a fellow crewmember after his vehicle struck and improvised explosive devise in Nalgham, Afghanistan.  After freeing the trapped driver, Private Dolmovic and Corporal Gionet performed life-saving first-aid, despite imminent risks of fire, explosions and enemy attack.”