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.