Nurse proud of her colleagues in Afghanistan

By JT McVeigh, The Enterprise-Bulletin

Captain Mary Ann Barber from CFB Borden shows actors proper procedure during filming of a segment of I Am War, a documentary telling the story of five Canadian Forces members experiences in Afghanistan. Barber had three tours in the conflict during her tenure as a combat nurse.

SPECIAL PHOTO Captain Mary Ann Barber from CFB Borden shows actors proper procedure during filming of a segment of I Am War, a documentary telling the story of five Canadian Forces members experiences in Afghanistan. Barber had three tours in the conflict during her tenure as a combat nurse.

WASAGA BEACH – You would think that after three tours of Afghanistan as a combat nurse, there wouldn’t be much that would scare you.


Appearing in a documentary (I Am War, broadcast of the History Channel Nov. 10 at 9 p.m.) about her life in the Canadian Forces, sharing some of her most poignant experiences was more than a little unnerving.

“I’m not going to lie, it was a little terrifying. It's one thing talking about your experiences with my family and with my colleagues, or talking to my friends that I was there with, but it is something quite another to sit and talk to a camera and a crew now for sharing your experiences with the rest of the country,” said Mary Ann Barber from her Wasaga Beach home. “So it's a little intimidating and a little humbling at the same time”.

She said the crew were fantastic and very accommodating to her ridiculously busy schedule, very reassuring, and great to work with.

Barber went on three tours in Afghanistan - in 2005, a short stint in 2007 and the last tour in 2008, and what she saw there stays close to her.

Teaching at the CFB Borden medical facilities until February, she is working to get her Nurse Practitioner designation.

Talking to a camera about her experiences didn’t come easily.

“We kind of have this rule in the military that we just don’t talk about this kind of stuff. We’ve all gone through the same thing and we have all had our own struggles. It's just something that we don’t talk, it's just part of the culture, you know, been there, done that and move on. And try not to dwell on it too much,” said Barber.

“Certainly after being there so frequently I know the role, what we did and what we accomplished, the care we provided and the lives that we saved, and if we couldn’t save a life we tried to be kind and loving and gentle for those people who were strangers but still died in our arms.”

If you don’t include the sand storms, Barber found working similar to what you would expect to find at a small hospital.

“Working in it is like working in a small hospital. I had done a clinical placement term just like our docs, we are partnered with civilian facilities so we were actually working in Collingwood’s General and Marine Hospital just keeping my nursing skills up. Last December I was there, so I mean it is not all trauma but we had lots of trauma coming in,” said Barber.

“We just take care of our people here like we took care of there. It’s just a different facility with sand storms, so many more gunshot wounds and blast injuries, but you know trauma is trauma.”

Despite working ‘inside the wire’ Barber was surprised that she, like so many of the veterans of the Afghani campaign, developed Post Traumatic Stress Sydrome.

“I was surprised when I first started suffering with my PTSD, because I loved my time there. I loved my job, I loved my experiences, I loved my patients, I didn’t want to come home. I believed in what we were doing and the people we were caring for and the impact that we were having helping the Afghan army, the national police. I believed everything that we were did and I loved it so much. I was never afraid; I never felt that I was suffering in any way,” said Barber. “So I was really surprised when I came home and I was having problems, with nightmares and flashbacks. I was doing a job that I love that I trained for. It didn’t make any sense to me.”

She credits the quality of the way the Canadian Forces have developed programs to help members suffering from PTSD.

“We started looking at the way we do mental health resilience in the Canadian Forces and we now have some amazing programs in place for that reason because it is OK to be human and to feel the emotions that you feel at the time and we had to begin looking at them a little bit different,” said Barber.

“So we learned some of our lessons and we have some new programs in place and I speak to some of those, now in the teaching and where I work. Telling junior nurses that it's OK to be human, that the things that you are seeing aren’t normal no matter how much of a trauma nurse you are.”

For the television program, Barber took the extra step of helping to film the recreation of her story and the effect on her was powerful.

“Yeah I did, I didn’t want it to be poorly done, not questioning Wayne (Abbott the film maker) but I wanted to make it as realistic and believable as possible for my military comrades who are going to watching this,” said Barber.

“It was devastating for me actually. It is one thing to tell these stories and I’m comfortable now sharing my experiences about Afghanistan and the patients that we cared for. It was a completely different experience now to see it lived out in real time with other people trying to portray what I was experiencing. So I was trying to explain to them the emotions that I was feeling and what we would have done and how we would have done it. Watching them go through the motions of that was really challenging. It was really hard and I wasn’t expecting that. It was a struggle to have to relive it again it brought me back.”

Canada’s participation in Afghanistan has lasted longer that the two world wars combined, 12 years in fact, and troops are still in the region - but Barber doesn’t believe that their work there has been wasted.

“I think our initial role was to fight the Taliban and rebuilding. Whether we are at war or not there are other things that we accomplished there. Buildings schools and help rebuild homes and even just irrigate farmer’s fields so that they can put a crop down. Even just the road building itself, it was such a huge part of our mission, the hospital training, we mentored hundreds of Afghan nurses and doctors, surgeons and medics. We trained all of their people to be able to manage very similarly to how we manage our people.

“Even just our military training mission with their army really became our focus early on and there is so much of that. We trained so many people with our operation mission liaison team and that included the training of the police force. That now means that they can take care of themselves,” said Barber.

The point Barber wants to make is that there have been thousands of people there and the work that they did shows a lot about what Canada is.

“In terms of hearts and minds, it’s as simple as the nationals that we took in and cared for. It's just as simple as, 'Hey there much of the world does care and we are here to help',” said Barber. 

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