YARMOUTH, N.S. – When Ashley Collette was five years old and lived with her parents near the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, friends of her parents – air force pilots – would often come over and watch movies at their house.
Immediately, she knew.
She knew at that young age that one day she would be in the military.
“I was in love with them. I just wanted to be them,” she says.
That feeling never wavered. Not when she was living in Yarmouth, N.S., attending high school as part of the YCMHS Class of 2002. Not when she was involved in cadets here. And not when she applied to the Royal Military College, and absolutely nowhere else. She and her mom Angie Thurston still joke about that, she says.
“I just always knew,” she says, speaking in a phone interview from Edmonton.
People who tune into an original documentary special on HISTORY on Nov. 10 called I Am War will learn more about Collette – actually, about Capt. Ashley Collette, who was a platoon leader while deployed in Afghanistan. The TV documentary special tells the personal stories – in their own, raw, words – of five men and women who fought with the Canadian Armed Forces and how the experience forever changed their lives. (It is being repeated on HISTORY throughout the weekend. Check local listings.)
Asked why she decided to participate in the documentary, Collette says what sold her was the documentary’s intention to showcase the human aspect of war.
“I thought that was awesome and really aligned with the person I want to be, not just in terms of who I am, but also in my work life,” says Collette, who is now a military social worker in Edmonton. She was happy to use her story to reach where, she hopes, we can get to as a society.
And where is that?
“To talk to each other about soldiers’ experiences. To talk to each other about what it’s like to be a human in war. To not be scared to ask tough questions,” she says.
While serving in battle with others, you go through shared experiences, but Collette says it is also a personal experience for those involved. And there are many feelings to sort through, which she did both on the battlefield and when she came home when her deployment ended in December 2010.
“In war I really felt like I was living out what I was born to do. I joined the Canadian Forces to go do that. But the hard part for me, and I know for other soldiers too, is coming home and not knowing where you fit in and not knowing what your mission is.”
In Afghanistan, Capt. Collette was the only female infantry soldier in her platoon. She says when they went into the towns and villages she was always treated the way a person would want to be regardless of their gender.
“I was pleasantly surprised of how receptive the community was,” she says. “They just sort of fell in line with how my soldiers treated me, which was with a lot of respect.”
In Afghanistan troops were constantly coming under attack from enemy fire. But the enemy didn’t always carry guns. Often it was the IEDs (improvised explosive devices), lurking, unseen, and always at the ready to strike.
“It often doesn’t feel like a fair fight because you don’t really know when you’re going to set one off. You’re trained to find them, but they truly are a horrible weapon of war.”
And it was a horrible lesson Collette would come to know all too well when her close friend, Sgt. Jimmy MacNeil – an engineer attached to their platoon, who was from Cape Breton – died. Despite his high level of expertise, he was killed by an IED, proving that everyone, despite their training, was vulnerable. Could be a target.
His death is still a hard loss all these years later.
“He was truly a shining light,” Collette says. “He was one of the most selfless human beings I have ever known in my entire life.”
In the documentary she shares what it was like to lose a friend and still have to carry on in her position of leadership. When you are deployed, she says, everyone knows there is a possibility you won’t come home, and if not you, then maybe someone you know or are close to.
“I had a phenomenal team and we stuck together and kept moving. That’s really what got me through it,” she says. “The level of camaraderie that one experiences in war is, I think, beyond anything else possibly in life.”
Looking back, asked what makes her feel the proudest about the time she spent deployed in Afghanistan – interestingly, she says, a question she’s never been asked before – she again points to that level of camaraderie.
“I will never, ever forget those guys. I respect and appreciate them so much. That was a pinnacle moment in my life, that period of time,” she says. “I think back to moments when we’d get into a fire fight, or get shot at, or an IED would explode – just to watch that group of people that I had been a part of training for upwards of two years before deployment is a memory I will never forget. I feel so proud of that team.”
And pride is still a big part of her life. As a social worker she says she’s honoured to be a part of people’s journeys during some of the most vulnerable times of their lives.
“That is a gift beyond what one can imagine,” says Collette – who in 2012 received the Medal of Military Valour and describes herself as being “super passionate about post traumatic growth.”
She is and will always be a soldier at heart, but when she had the opportunity to go back to school and get her master of social work, she took it because she wants to change the way people talk about trauma with Canadian Forces members. And so she explores the possibility of positively growing from the result of struggling with trauma.
“I think I have a unique perspective to offer to the health services, to the academic community, to Canadian Forces as a whole so my life really revolves around this mission,” she says.
And this involves everyone learning from the experiences of soldiers.
“I wish more people would be comfortable just to be curious,” she says.
So ask her the question again: Why did she choose to participate in the documentary?
“Because I really, really believe in the value of sharing challenging experiences with each other,” she says. “It’s a way I want to live – to be an example of what I want to see in the world.”
ABOUT THE DOCUMENTARY
I Am War will air on HISTORY on Friday, Nov. 10 at 10 p.m. Yarmouth time (9 p.m. ET) as part of the Days of Remembrance programming.
The documentary features the voices of Sgt. Dan Matthews of the Royal Canadian Regiment from Ontario; Cpl. Jamaal Garner of the Royal 22nd Regiment of Canada from Quebec; Capt. Mary Ann Barber, a combat nurse from Ontario; James Akam, a former Canadian Forces interpreter from Afghanistan; and former platoon leader Capt. Ashley Collette, now a military social worker from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
I AM WAR is produced and directed by Wayne Abbott of Northern Sky Entertainment.