A healer, a hero: Captain Mary Ann Barber on the importance of self-care

Photo © Courtesy of Mary Ann Barber

On occasions like Remembrance Day, Canadians come together to honour the service and sacrifices of our many brave soldiers and Veterans who work in conditions that would send most of us running for cover. But the impact of war on those who serve is felt long after their deployment ends.

Captain Mary Ann Barber is one of those heroes. A passionate nurse and healer, the Sault Ste. Marie native’s time in the Canadian Armed Forces started in June of 1997.

After graduating from the regular officer training plan, she started her career as a new grad nurse. Her first deployment was in Bosnia as a Critical Care Nursing Officer, where she assisted in the management of the Unit Medical Station in Velika Kladuša in 2002. Upon her return the following April, she began working in the ICU. In 2005, she was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, as the Nurse in Charge of the Resuscitation department.

“Nurses in the military were the first women in the military—the first commissioned officers in the Canadian military. They were these trailblazer women…there’s this incredible legacy of what it is to be a military nurse. I was pretty proud to be a part of that” —Captain Mary Ann Barber

Captain Barber was deployed for two years in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and recounts her experiences there as heart-wrenching, yet incredibly rewarding.

“During the war, everything came to us. It was a non-stop flow of mangled bodies for the time that I was there. It was some of the most heartbreaking times of my life.”

She began showing signs of PTSD in 2008, and recalls experiencing nightmares and graphic flashbacks from her 2007 tour. When she returned home in 2009, her mental health was at an all-time low.
She was officially diagnosed with PTSD in 2009, but it wouldn’t be until 2012 that Captain Barber accepted the help that she needed and began doing the work to heal.

“It really was an uphill battle, but it’s one that needed to be done. I didn’t want to become a statistic. I didn’t want my life to be what it was. I was really unhappy and I knew that if I wanted to be happy, it was me who had to change it. There was never going to be a magic pill, or one magic counselling session or one magic wave of some wand that was going to happen and all of a sudden my life was going to be better and my PTSD was going to be gone and that everything would be OK. It was an ‘aha’ moment like ‘OK, time to go. Off we go; start climbing this mountain.’ And I did!”

Photo © Courtesy of Mary Ann Barber
Photo © Courtesy of Mary Ann Barber
Mental Healing

But even healers need healing sometimes. While Captain Barber made an incredible impact with her work overseas, her work also left a sizeable impact on her mental health. Barber was medically released in 2018 and has been open about her struggles with PTSD and anxiety during her time abroad.

In an interview on True Patriot Love’s For Her Country* podcast, Mary Ann spoke about her experiences in deployment and how she implements self-care and healing into her life.

“Something that I learned along the way was that it’s really important to acknowledge that it’s ok to not be ok. We have this expectation, especially as women, that we have to be able to juggle the world and keep going and put a smile on our face. What I’ve learned over time is that sometimes moving forward is just standing still. If all you can manage to do in a short period of time or even in a long period of time is just to get through the day, then that’s ok. I came to realize that I didn’t need to take on the world. When I look back at all the things I accomplished while in uniform, I’m really proud of what I did and the patients that I took care of and the things that I did. But some of my ambition contributed to my demise. There was no time for me, there was only ever time for my career. Looking back now I wish I had more of a balance. I really make a point now of finding balance.” —Captain Mary Ann Barber

Captain Mary Ann credits True Patriot Love with much of her recovery. The foundation hosts expeditions for soldiers and veterans, pairing ill and injured members with civilian business people, creating a transformational journey of healing and adventure, all while raising money for the military and veteran community.

Photo © Courtesy of Mary Ann Barber
True Patriot Love

The services that our nation’s brave soldiers and veterans provide last well beyond the lifespan of November’s poppies. While abroad, they are sustained and inspired by the support from home. When they return home, that support is even more critical—and yet, many soldiers return to a society that is ill-equipped to understand and support an individual who has been through the stress of service and the atrocities of a war zone.

True Patriot Love is Canada’s leading national foundation that supports active members of the Canadian Armed Forces, Veterans and their families, funds community-based programs, and contributes to the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research.

True Patriot Love is uniquely positioned to be able to understand the greatest needs of Canadian military families and then activate the resources required to deliver the most significant impact. Their national perspective allows them to ensure that military and Veteran families receive the same level of support, no matter where they live.
It was their duty to protect us, now it’s our duty to help them. Learn more and donate today at TruePatriotLove.com

*For Her Country is a podcast series in honour of Capt. Nichola Goddard, an inspiring young artillery officer who became the first Canadian woman soldier to die in a combat role. The series features the stories of women in the Canadian Armed Forces, diving into their experiences from base training to deployments, and exploring the themes of leadership, resiliency, gender diversity and more.

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