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: 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 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.