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Gabrielle Giffords Aide Ron Barber Slowly Healing Both Body & Mind

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GABRIELLE GIFFORDS

TUCSON, Ariz. — Ron Barber takes the metal cane and asks, "So where do you want me to go?"

"In the kitchen, to the sink," physical therapist Deborah Perry replies.

With Perry close behind and wife Nancy watching nearby, the 65-year-old aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords inches his way across the painted concrete floor, grimacing and groaning softly as he lifts his numb left foot. After about 10 feet, he turns and heads back.

"Do you feel confident?" Perry asks.

"I think so," Barber says, panting a bit. "I don't feel like I'm off balance or anything."

Baby steps, to be sure, but Barber is pleased. When he smiles, the deep indentation in the center of his left cheek makes an already friendly face look downright jolly.

"My daughters say I have a dimple," Barber says of the mark left by the bullet. "My youngest daughter has a dimple, pretty much in the same place. But I certainly wouldn't recommend this method of getting one."

Seven weeks after a gunman opened fire during Giffords' meet-and-greet in a Safeway grocery store parking lot, Barber's physical wounds have largely healed. But he knows it is the invisible ones that will take the most time to mend, if they ever do.

"What I deal with frequently is just the tape running in my head – sometimes in dreams, sometimes during the day – of what happened," he says. "And that's, that's very difficult to remember and to see that."

Besides Giffords, Barber, her district director, was the most seriously injured of the 13 survivors of the Jan. 8 attack. Six died.

Today, a man who had never had surgery or even been in a hospital for a serious illness spends his days with pain meds and acupuncture, long naps and grueling sessions of physical and emotional therapy.

As he focuses on healing, something else stirs him. It is more desperate and immediate: He wants to help bind up the wounds of the community that he has called home for more than five decades.

"The important thing to me, I think, is that Tucson not be defined by the tragic shootings of Jan. 8," he says. "That's not who we are. That event was an aberration. A terrible event for sure ... but what Tucson is really about is what happened after."

And that was the outpouring of goodwill, and compassion, even for the 22-year-old man accused of trying to kill him: Jared Lee Loughner.

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Growing up in London, Barber was raised on a steady diet of American Westerns. When he was 13, his parents told him they were moving to Tucson, a desert town where people went to get a taste of the rugged, gun-slinging Old West.

"It was like a dream come true," he says. "I just couldn't wait to get here."

Barber and "Nannie" met when they were 15. His 16th birthday was their first date; her Sweet 16 was their second.

After high school, Barber went to the University of Arizona, where his friends included future U.S. District Judge John Roll. He graduated with a degree in political science.

For 32 years, Barber worked for the state, helping people with developmental disabilities and mental illness. He retired from his state job after Giffords, a state legislator, announced she was running for Congress. He volunteered on her campaign.

After she won in 2006, he became head of her Tucson office.

One of the things he liked most about Giffords was her dedication to working for her constituents. She was back in the district almost every weekend, even when Congress was in session.

The day of the shootings, a Saturday, Giffords was out in front of the Safeway, holding one of her "Congress on Your Corner" events. Dozens of people – including longtime friend Roll – turned out to see their representative.

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In Barber's mental "tape," he is standing beside his boss when a man in a dark hooded sweat shirt skirts the crowd.

He does not see the shaved head or the wild eyes from the now infamous mug shots – just a determined look as the man raises the black semiautomatic pistol and fires.

Giffords is hit in the head, and now the 9 mm Glock is pointing at Barber.

Barber sees a muzzle flash. Pop, pop, pop. There is no pain, no burning sensation, as the slugs tear through his face and leg. But he is on the ground. Pop, pop, pop. Someone is on top of him. Pop, pop, pop.

He can see a spent brass shell casing lying in a puddle of blood.

Next, there is a woman's hair dangling before his face and the pressure of hands on the wound in his thigh. He is being lifted onto a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. Then sirens.

The first bullet entered Barber's left cheek, followed the jaw and exited the back of his neck, missing his carotid artery by 2 millimeters. The bullet's "remarkable trajectory" fractured Barber's jaw, but did no permanent physical damage.

The second hit Barber near the groin and came out through his left hip, nicking or "shocking" the sciatic nerve.

He hasn't watched the surveillance video footage, but those who have say Roll pushed Barber to the ground and tried to shove him beneath a table, out of the line of fire. Barber has no problem believing it of his old friend, who was among the dead.

"He was on top of me when he was shot," Barber says softly. "He took a bullet for sure, and it could well have been a bullet intended for me."

Barber says he has no survivor's guilt. But he is haunted by a question to which he knows there can be no answer.

"How it is that, on both sides of me, two really good people died, and I didn't."

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Barber spent about a week in the hospital. While he was still in the intensive care unit, he began thinking of ways to salvage some good out of what happened.

Last week, he rose shakily from a wheelchair to stand behind a podium.

The shooting was "a moment when our community said we are about good things, not bad things," Barber told the crowd. "And there's a positive energy that still exists here."

The Barber family is putting up their own money to create the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding. Barber's goal is to help fund efforts to combat bullying and civil discord through education and outreach.

He also wants to raise awareness about mental illness, and take some of the stigma out of seeking treatment, "which, of course, have a lot to do with what happened on Jan. 8."

Although officials have not said whether Loughner – who was suspended from Pima Community College last year for disturbing behavior – has been diagnosed with a psychological disorder, Barber thinks it's clear there is something wrong with him.

And that prevents him from hating Loughner.

"I have no anger toward him," he says. "Maybe that'll come, I don't know. I really, in some ways, am sort of blank about him."

Loughner has pleaded not guilty to one count of attempted assassination of a member of Congress, and attempting to kill two federal employees. Other charges are expected. A status hearing is scheduled for March 9.

Barber is trying to decide whether to attend.

"The first time I'll have seen him" since the shootings, he says. "Trying to make sure I do everything in a smart way."

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For the past few weeks, Barber has spent most of his waking hours lying in a black-leather recliner in his living room, his left foot elevated above his head on a Southwest-patterned pillow.

Nearby, on the hearth, stands a framed photo of two clasped hands – they belong to Barber and Anna Ballis, the shopper who pressed down on his leg wound and likely saved his life.

"United forever," it reads. "Together we will heal."

Barber has been fitted with a brace that straps to his calf and extends into the shoe to prevent his foot from dropping when he lifts it. Perry comes twice a week to work with him on his balance and strength, and to teach him ways to work around his limitations.

But that is just half the battle.

Once a week, Barber meets with a psychologist. He has also undergone several sessions of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy – a technique used to treat returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The exercises are wearing.

"I have to say last week I told Nancy I felt like I was therapized to the point of, `I don't want to do this anymore,'" he confesses to Perry. "I mean, I was doing PT, I was doing acupuncture and I was doing EMDR every day. And I'd just had enough."

But they are working. He is sleeping better, and the flashbacks have decreased in frequency and intensity.

"I'm beginning to kind of peel away the surface and begin to get into depth about what I'm feeling and what I'm trying to deal with," he says.

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In the meantime, Barber is keeping busy. He may not be going to the office, but he's still working. He checks in several times a day, sending an e-mail to make sure someone is attending this function or that press conference.

"Right now, it's not hard to keep him from going back to work. It's just helping him realize his energy level isn't up to going back," says Nancy, his wife of 43 years.

And he does his part to make sure people know Giffords' office is still in business.

Last Thursday was the annual Tucson Rodeo, which bills itself as the nation's largest non-mechanized parade. Giffords normally rides a horse in the procession, but she is recuperating at a rehabilitation hospital more than 900 miles away in Houston.

This year, Barber and co-worker Pam Simon – who was shot in the chest and right wrist – took her place, riding in an open buggy as other staff members walked alongside.

Barber knows the office is short staffed. Among those killed in the shootings was Gabe Zimmerman, Barber's deputy and "right hand man." But as eager as Barber is to return, he knows he is not ready – physically or emotionally.

"It's hard for me to know when I'll know," he says, absent-mindedly scanning the ceiling. "I guess I'll know when I know."

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