'I Am War': Edmonton medal of valour winner relives Afghanistan conflict in new documentary

Ashley Collette knows war can leave invisible scars.  

A month into her deployment in Afghanistan, as a captain leading a platoon of 40, the Edmonton veteran lost her first soldier.

On June 21 2010, Collette and Sgt. Jimmy MacNeil were on foot patrol outside the remote village of Nakhonay when they found two improvised explosive devices.

When they began the painstaking work of trying to safely detonate the IEDS, something went wrong.

MacNeil was killed in the blast.

An engineer attached to the platoon, he was a popular soldier and Collette's dear friend.

'Life wasn't the same upon return'

"It changed me in many ways," Collette said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"It was a pinnacle time, a period of my life, not just on my deployment but also the years surrounding it, losing other friends on other tours, just because I wasn't there doesn't mean it doesn't affect us all."

"It's a small community, the Canadian Forces. And in many ways, life wasn't the same upon return."

Collette's memories of the conflict are featured in a new History Channel series I Am War, which profiles the experiences of five people who served in the Canadian Forces during the Afghanistan conflict.

"When they phoned me, they said they wanted to make a documentary about the human aspect of being in war," said Collette, who now works as social worker within the Canadian Forces. "And I thought, what a great way to pay it forward.

"Every day, I ask soldiers to come in and  talk about their experiences and get vulnerable … and I thought it would be nice to do the same and share some of my experiences."

'I remember hearing some firefight'

First deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, on her first day in country Collette's platoon came under attack.

She had stepped off the plane and into the scorching desert heat hours before, and rushed her platoon to a remote outpost.

At a meeting of village elders in Nakhonay that afternoon, she heard the pop, pop, pop of gunfire in the distance. Soldiers from her platoon on patrol nearby were under enemy fire.

"I remember hearing some firefight, some bullets firing in the background, and then hearing it come over the radio that on their very first patrol, they had got into an enemy contact," Collette recalled.

"Nothing too horrible happened that very first day. I remember hearing my warrant officer's voice ... over the radio. At that point, I could hear in his voice that everyone was going to be OK."

They spent the next five months patrolling the village for signs of enemy activity, sleeping at night in an abandoned school house.

Gunfire was a daily occurrence.

Nakhonay, in the Panjwaii district, is known as the birthplace of the Taliban. It proved a bloody battleground for Canadian troops stationed near Kandahar.

"We would go out on regular, daily patrols and make relationships with the local population, and be prepared to react or respond to any enemy presence that might be there in the village," she said.

While Collette talks about her deployment with a soldier's characteristic restraint, the daily terrors took their toll.

Upon her return from Afghanistan, she was the first woman awarded the Medal of Military Valour, one of Canada's highest military honours.

She was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She leaned on friends, family and fellow soldiers and found strength in others. 

She now works as a Canadian Forces social worker, helping others recover from their own psychological battle scars.

"In some ways I suffered, but in other ways I grew as a result of the experience," said Collette.

"We can grow psychologically in a  positive way as a result of our trauma. The concept isn't new. It's been around for thousands of years, so really now I want to be a part of promoting conditions that might help somebody to grow."

Collette hopes her testimony in I Am War acts a reminder of the ravages of war, and helps those who survive find help after they're called home.

"I really hope it opens a dialogue between people —  both people who have been to war and people who have not been to war — so we don't forget about what has been done."