Nine-year-old Elizabeth Barnes of Flatrock was quite young when her dad, warrant officer Spencer Barnes of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, took his first tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2007, but she does remember what it was like when he left again two years later.
“When he was about to leave, I was clinging on to him,” said Elizabeth, now a Grade 4 student at Cape St. Francis Elementary in Pouch Cove. “I didn’t want him to go — I wanted him to stay here.”
Barnes, who joined the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in 1990, has four children with his wife, Ingrid Verbree-Barnes. He is the Company Sgt. Maj. for A Company in St. John’s.
Barnes had been married two years at the time he decided to join the regiment. With his civilian career solidly in place, he felt the time was right to give back to his country.
Reservists such as Barnes cannot be forced to go to war zones unless a state of emergency requires a full mobilization. When he signed up, Barnes did not have intentions of going to such a place.
What changed things for him was learning about the Afghanistan mission’s intent — to help people in the country.
He got a sense of the mission’s impact while watching television coverage of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, where runner Robina Muqimyar competed in the 100-metre sprint. She was one of the first two women from Afghanistan to compete in any Olympic competition.
“That was, to me, proof that the changes in the government of Afghanistan, in part due to Canadian efforts, were doing some good in modernizing the country, and I wanted to help,” he said.
When he brought the idea of heading overseas to his family, it was not immediately embraced, but after some discussion about the merits of taking part in the mission, Barnes’ family agreed to support his decision.
Making that decision easier was the fact his older children could help out around the house. He did face some tough questions, though, prior to leaving.
“What happens if you get hurt? What happens if you die? Questions a 15- or 16-year-old would ask,” said Barnes. “But you point to the training we get, and the fact we send over 2,800 people at a time. In comparison to previous conflicts, the rate of injury and death is somewhat lower. Still too high, but somewhat lower. The odds are reasonably good that it’s not going to be an issue.”
For both trips, he worked at Kandahar Airfield, helping with indoctrination training for new arrivals and co-ordination work for the surveillance aircraft. The tours lasted six and nine months respectively, though extra training required him to be away from home for 15 months each time.
Though he may have been far away, Barnes did have means to communicate with his family, and he did make use of leave time to return to the province for stretches.
While her dad was away in 2009, Elizabeth said she tried to focus on schoolwork instead of him so she would not feel so sad. She knew her dad was in Afghanistan to help the country rebuild and give little girls there the chance to go to school.
She was also aware of the fighting that took place in the country.
“I felt like he was going to get killed, so I prayed every night,” said Elizabeth.
Elizabeth always enjoyed her dad’s visits. “I was so excited — I would cling on to him for hours,” she said, adding they would often play games, watch television and read stories together while he was home.
While he enjoyed his visits, he was disappointed to miss out on birthdays, school events and two sets of summer holidays.
“There were significant periods of time where dad just wasn’t where he was supposed to be,” said Barnes.
While Elizabeth would feel particularly upset if her Dad decided to go back to Afghanistan at any point, she can understand why he might make that decision, as people there still need help.
Barnes said the door is not closed on going on another tour of duty somewhere overseas.
As for her dad’s involvement in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Elizabeth said she is proud of her dad. He once came to her school to talk about his experience in Afghanistan, and explained how children there ask Canadian soldiers for paper and pencils on the street to use at school.
“When the local children of Afghanistan approach soldiers in vehicles, they’re holding one hand flat and scratching at it with the surface of the index finger on the other hand,” explains Barnes. “Most places you go, children ask for candy. In Afghanistan, they’re asking for pencils and paper so they can go to school.”