A day in the life.
We are advancing across an open field, rifles at the ready. We are told there could be enemy forces hidden among the brush scattered throughout the area. The soldiers, in arrowhead formation, keep their eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary. Shots ring out in the stillness of the morning air and immediately everyone drops to the ground. The section commander yells out orders, tells everyone to advance into an extended line. Shouts of "covering," and "moving," are heard from the section as they move forward into position as enemy fire continues to rain down around us. I run along behind as events unfold around me. I am a journalist along for the ride so the only thing I have on me is nay camera and a backpack with my lunch and some toilet paper.
Suddenly someone yells that the enemy has been spotted. He shouts out the location as everyone tries to get eyes on. The enemy continues with sporadic bursts of gunfire as the Cameron Highlanders retaliate and continue to advance. Under covering fire from the rest of the section, one soldier runs forward and throws a grenade behind the berm where the enemy is located. The blast goes off, the soldier jumps in and checks to make sure the enemy is dead while removing any weapons within his reach.
Once this is completed, the section and enemies gather to review the good points of the attack and aspects where improvement is needed. The Cameron Highlanders are on exercise at CFB Petawawa, practicing the types of attacks they could expect when fighting overseas in Afghanistan.
Master-Corporal Brian Harding spent six months in Kandahar, from September 2008 until March 2009. He knows the types of situations that can arise and says making sure that every soldier has the basic skills is the most important when getting ready for deployment.
"Everything we're doing right now in our regimental training is just making the basic soldier skills as solid as humanly possible," explains MCpl Harding who is studying criminology at Carleton University. "When they get ready to deploy overseas they get a lot of specialty training, but that training is all dependent on them showing up with the basic skill set. So that's really what we're aiming for. We can't train them at our level to fight in Kandahar; what we can teach them is the basics for the job."
The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa have a long and proud history that can be traced back as far as 1866 with the formation of the 43rd Battalion of Infantry, known then as the Carleton Blazers. In the years since, the reserve unit has undergone many changes and made its mark on Canadian military history, receiving battle honours for such famous conflicts as the Somme and Passchendaele in the First World War, and Normandy Landing and the Rhine in the Second.
The Highlanders--which are made up of university and college students, lawyers, accountants and others from countless trades across the Ottawa area--have over 200 reservists currently serving. And as reservists, they must juggle far more than the average person.
Captain David Duggins, who was Regular Force for 13 years before switching over, explains how the troops have to juggle work, full-time school and family obligations on top of reservist training. "My employer won't compensate me for my weekends spent on exercise," says the captain who is a law clerk for the Federal Court of Canada. "Normally, in the Reg Force, if they spend weekends training they would be compensated with extra days oft:" Here, that doesn't happen.
I arrive at the Cartier Square Drill Hall on Friday at 1900 hours ready to begin the exercise that is set for October 2-4 in Petawawa. Inside, the soldiers are making sure all their kit is ready to go. I take a seat next to a few reservists on my bright-red pack, decked out in my warmest black, grey and pink civilian jacket, feeling conspicuously out of place among the sea of green. The soldiers start asking if I've packed warm gear, lots of socks and if I have a sleeping bag. Although I'm able to answer yes to these, I silently pray I've got enough to keep me warm and dry over the next two days and nights.
We pile on two buses and begin our two-hour journey to the base. I manage to grab a 20-minute nap on the bus before being awoken by a stop at Tim Hortons. Figuring it will be my only chance to grab some decent food and coffee for the weekend, I follow the rest of the surprised soldiers in to order. An hour and a half later, we enter the base and the buses bring us as close as they can to our campsite. We all get off, find our kit and walk the couple hundred metres to the site in a slight drizzle.
An advance party came up earlier in the day to set up so there would be less to do once the rest of us arrived. The plan was to finish getting things in order and then grab a few hours of sleep so we could be well rested for the following morning. I noticed a lack of other females, and as such, I was placed in the officers' tent along with the soldiers who would be acting as enemy forces for the rest of the weekend. Needless to say, I didn't get a wink of sleep due to the symphony of snores coming from my tent companions.
Reveille for the officers is 0600 hrs, but having been tied to the first platoon, I'm up at 0530. My alarm goes off telling me it's time to wake up, which isn't a problem since I never went to sleep. Fumbling in the dark, I dress and pack my bag with everything I'll need for the rest of the day. I head off to the tent where the troops slept and have a quick breakfast of lukewarm rations.
Today, the troops will practice section attacks. This is the first time for many of the guys to be working in sections while not on course. "This is a training weekend leading up to the next [exercise]," says Capt. Duggins. "We want to see what skills they possess, what they need to work on."
The two platoons and I head out to the area where we will be conducting the attacks. Once we arrive, they go over the fundamentals to make sure everyone is up to speed. I'm hitched to the second section of the first platoon and off we go to find the enemy.
After the attack is carried out, I switch over to the first section of the first platoon to see how they're faring and get to join the enemy to watch the ambush from a different vantage point. Hidden in the tall grass, 2nd Lieutenant Matt Robidoux and I watch as the section advances on our position. After firing a few shots, 2Lt. Robidoux gets hit as the section closes the distance, effectively killing their target. They check for a pulse and move his weapon out of reach should he not actually be dead. More shots ring out from another source, metres away from where we are. The section effectively takes down the remaining enemy and the process begins again.
"When the enemy pops up at close range you have to get in there and hammer them hard and quick," says First Platoon Commander Lieutenant Mike Hook, who has been a reservist with the Camerons for just over a year, during the debrief.
We break for lunch and prepare for the platoon attack that will take place in the afternoon. The attacks are more of the same from the morning, just with more people to move. I run along from section to section as they advance towards the enemy, snapping photos and trying not to get in anyone's way.
After an incredibly heavy downpour laced with pellet-sized hail, the troops are back at the campsite preparing for the night's reconnaissance mission. The sections are to be led by corporals who have never been in charge of a patrol. Their mission is to locate an enemy outpost and bring back any information about the insurgents to the platoon commanders.
As everyone is milling about, waiting for the hay-box dinner to arrive, a young black bear wanders onto our campsite. One soldier fires off a warning shot but the bear doesn't even flinch, instead it just keeps coming closer. Apparently, the bears have learned that although the sound is incredibly loud, the rifles fire nothing but blanks. In order to deter the bear, one of the guys hops in the truck and chases the animal until it retreats past the campsite.
I change my socks, put on another two layers of clothing and prepare for the night's mission. We start out at 2245. The section commander leads us through dense brush and I try to keep up in the darkness with my eyes half-closed as twigs and branches whip past my face.
Stopped in a ditch along the side of a road, the soldier in charge of the map and compass takes out a small red flashlight and checks our position while another reservist tries to shield the light with his body. I can see a small blue glow-light over in a stand of trees, but nobody makes a move to go that way. Instead, they're up and moving, taking us deeper into the woods.
All of a sudden I'm up to my shins in swamp. The frigid water pours into my boots, instantly soaking my feet. We keep pushing forward as the water slowly keeps rising. Shins, thighs, hips and then it's almost up to my waist. At this point, Lt. Hook, who joined this recce in order to observe, pulls me back and finds us a drier way back to the road. The patrol of four continues through the swamp until they meet us on the other side.
The blue light I noticed earlier is now on our opposite side, and as it turns out, that is the area they are supposed to observe. Lt. Hook tells me, while trying to suppress a laugh at my waterlogged state, that the patrol got turned around and the trek through the swamp could have been avoided. We approach the light, but the enemy forces that are supposed to be there for the patrol to monitor are nowhere in sight.
Lt. Hook and I take a walk up the road and come upon the enemy and their truck. Somewhere along the line orders got mixed up and everyone ended up at different points. So we hop in the truck and drive back to where they are supposed to be. We get out and the enemy's performance gets underway.
The patrol observes the enemy's doings for an hour and then we head back to the campsite where they report their findings. I'm happiest about the waiting Tim Hortons coffee and having the chance to change my soaked socks. It's now after 0200, and after being up for 38 hours straight, I crash hard and sleep until being awoken around 0700.
After a quick breakfast, orders are given for a platoon attack. The enemy is somewhere near our campsite and the platoon has to go flush them out. We set off down the road and not 10 minutes later we come under enemy fire. Sections start running everywhere and orders are being yelled from every side. I take cover with the section closest to me trying to understand what is going on. Although I'm having trouble keeping up, everyone else seems to know where they should be and what they are to do.
I spot another section atop a hill and decide that's where I should be. Trying to keep out of the way of everyone down below, I run up the hill and drop down in the dirt beside the C6. The two reservists who are manning the machine gun unleash on the enemy who are somewhere down below us.
After this, it's one more platoon attack, but this time I get the opportunity to see it from the enemy's point of view. They do an attack that is well used overseas, known as the "shoot and scurry." A few insurgents shoot at the approaching troops and before the soldiers can get into a defensive position, the enemy takes off back to another point where more insurgents are waiting. After waiting 15 minutes or so, the troops come running out of the bush, successfully ambushing and disabling the enemy.
"I think it went really well," says MCpl Harding about the weekend exercise. "We took a bunch of new soldiers pretty much right off course and we brought them to a higher standard in 48 hours. They responded very well to what it was we were trying to convey to them and we got some very good training out of it fight at the platoon level."
We head back to camp where the teardown begins. After the trucks have been loaded and garbage sweeps have been performed, everyone gets a ration pack and heads back to the buses.
After very little sleep over the past two days, the bus ride back is quiet, save for a few snores. Before I enjoy a couple hours of shut-eye myself, I try to imagine what it would be like doing this on a day-to-day basis over the span of a number of months. I can't even begin, so instead I close my eyes and drift off to a much-needed sleep.
Editor's note: To view additional photos of the Cameron Highlanders' training exercise and of OP Collaborative Spirit, please go to our revamped website and photo galleries www.espritdecorps.ca.
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|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2009|
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