When I came out of my coma in Vancouver General Hospital about six weeks after I was wounded, I thought I was recovering from injuries from an IED strike I survived in the third week of my tour and would soon be back with my battle group.
When a callous doctor told me I'd sustained a severe head wound and wouldn't be rejoining my brothers in the field, I fell into a deep depression that jeopardized my recovery. I'd trained hard for over a year far from my family for a mission that I fiercely believed in and I was crushed by the realization that I wouldn't get to complete it.
My best friend Barb Stegemann spent many hours at my bedside and promised then to continue my mission to protect and empower the people of Afghanistan. We shared an apartment in Halifax in the 90s and I signed my Armed Forces joining papers at our kitchen table. Barb would have joined up too but a hearing impairment made that impossible. When she made that promise, she had no idea how she would keep it.
One day, she read about Abdullah Arsala, an Afghan essential-oils distiller who was trying to support his tribe by creating legal crops of orange blossom and roses instead of the poppy crop that accounts for 90 per cent of the world's heroin supply. Barb found out that if the farmers were paid a certain amount for orange-blossom oil and rose oil, they would stop growing poppies. Barb didn't have a clue how to make a perfume, nor did she have financial backing but she has never lacked for guts or confidence and just called Abdullah and put $2,000 of his orange-blossom oil on her Visa card. Abdullah's distillery is in the western Afghanistan city of Jalalabad near the Pakistan border. He employs 15 full-time staff and more than 2,500 seasonal workers.
The first scent was Afghanistan Orange Blossom, followed by Noble Rose of Afghanistan. Then Barb launched Vetiver of Haiti, and Middle East Peace, a blend of Sweetie grapefruit oil from Israel with lime and basil oil from Iran. A friend joked that Barb is the first person to patent Middle East Peace. The essential oil for Patchouli of Rwanda is harvested by farming co-operatives in Rwanda, providing 500 farmers with 2.5 times the income of comparative coffee crops. Four hundred of the farmers are adult orphans or widows of the horrific genocide that convulsed the country 20 years ago.
"When farmers can buy books and shoes for their children in a safe environment we will help reverse issues of poverty and war," says Barb. Her mission is profound; make perfume not war and make rebuilding more exciting than destruction.
Barb appeared on the CBC show Dragons Den in 2011 and moved two dragons to tears with an emotional pitch that would be selected as the best pitch in the show's history. Dragon Brett Wilson took her under his wing and continues to be a valuable mentor. She plows all profits back into the business to support the farmers and instead earns her living giving motivational talks and from sales of her bestselling self-help book The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, which offers advice on how women can use their buying and voting power to tackle war and poverty.
In 2010, Barb stood for me at my wedding as my best ma'am. Two years later she returned to Nanaimo to marry the love of her life, Mike Velemirovich and I stood for her. Mike and I recently co-authored a book on the global warming issue called There Is No Planet B; Promise And Peril On Our Warming World.
In line with her philosophy of following through on her wild ideas, Barb and Mike started a documentary film company this year. Loud Baby Productions is focused on films about social justice and philanthropic business. Their first project, naturally, is the 7Virtues story, called Perfume War. Her son, Victor, is the cameraman and Mike is the producer. The trailer brought tears to my eyes.
Barb believes in empowerment, not charity, and knows that businesses have a role to play alongside the military in stabilizing conflict zones like she is doing, most notably Afghanistan. She's making Perfume War to inspire others to create similar businesses that provide dignity, jobs and ultimately peace. "Another goal is to shine light on the farmers who supply the oil," she says. "They are not equipped with the PR machines like some of the oppressive regimes in their communities so we need to get their voice heard, their stories of rebuilding, forgiveness, need to be louder than the fanatics who get heard.'
Barb and Mike have started a kickstarter campaign to fund Perfume War. I think it will go a long way towards proving that through economic empowerment, businesses have a key role to play in building peace and resolving conflict.
I am extremely proud of how my best friend is carrying on with my mission with fragrant elegance and style.