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From the Sudbury Star:
ACCENT: Kandahar comes to Alberta; CFB Wainwright has been transformed into a full-scale replica of the Afghan terrain where our soldiers fight the Taliban, writes Trevor Stewart
Local News - Saturday, August 25, 2007 Updated @ 12:19:55 PM
A bright afternoon sun burns into a halted Canadian forces convoy on a road a few hundred metres from Belanday village.
A group of Canadian soldiers moves toward the village carrying aid boxes, while a dozen troops stealthily patrol the long line of trucks at the road. They move deliberately, pause and lay flat against the ground with rifles fixed on the distance. They glare at the countryside's small hills for any sign of Taliban insurgents.
Back at the village, across the road lined with green military vehicles, Belanday is in the midst of a religious celebration. Villagers can be seen together, playing and laughing, while local leaders and Canadian soldiers negotiate over the delivery of aid.
Suddenly, a man who looks like nothing more than a neighbour steps into the gathering and detonates his improvised explosive device, causing mass casualties among the stunned villagers. Back at the road, the soldiers protecting the parked convoy spot two insurgents, more would-be suicide bombers, moving toward the vehicles.
Soldiers shout "Stop!" Then "Stop him!"
The men continue to advance. One moves his hand toward his chest. Someone yells "Shoot him!" And the Canadian soldiers open fire.
While it's a tragic scenario Canadian forces witness often in Afghanistan, this drama unfolded Sunday at CFB Wainwright, Alta., during Exercise Maple Defender.
Everything here is staged - insurgents are actually Canadian soldiers dressed for the part, villages are populated by actors and soldiers fire blanks with results that register on the intricate Weapons Effect Simulation (WES) system.
Though death means nothing more than a six-hour break in "the morgue," for the 1,200 primary reserve soldiers from Ontario, including a handful from Sudbury's 2nd Battalion, Irish Regiment, this is deadly serious.
Everything at CFB Wainwright is meant to simulate Afghanistan, because here Canadian soldiers prepare for war.
"This is what the guys who have gone to Afghanistan say is the worst part - the immobilization, like in the city, sitting in traffic," said Sgt. Orson Edwards, a relatively soft-spoken veteran of a dozen years in the 7th Toronto Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery.
He and I, as an embedded journalist, sat in an idling supply truck as part of the halted convoy near the mock village. We also scoured the terrain around us, waiting for something to happen. We were talking about the realities of Afghanistan - a place he hasn't volunteered to go, yet - when "shit hits the fan," as soldiers often put it.
I was one of 19 Ontario journalists invited to Wainwright to observe the large-scale training exercise for Ontario reservists, which usually takes place at CFB Petawawa. Edwards was to drop me off, along with his supply load, so I could spend a couple of days embedded with troops.
The Canadian army has transformed 640 square kilometers of the base (roughly the size of Elliot Lake's city limits) into a simulation of Kandahar Province. They've renamed roads and rivers, constructed a replicate Kandahar Air Field in the north and scattered small villages throughout.
Even Wainwright's yellow-green prairie fields on the foothills of the Rockies make a suitable replacement for the dry, hilly terrain of the southern Afghan province. A free-thinking Taliban opposition force moves about the province and tests Canadian troops, not only in combat but in spotting signs of potential dangers.
The experience is so detailed, many reservists call the base 'Wainwrightistan.'
Soldiering is only a part-time job for reservists, who also live, work or are students in the civilian world. They train a few times a month with their local reserve units.
In the past couple of decades, the reserves have taken on a much more important role, however. The army is now more reliant on reservists for overseas missions with "the (increased) tempo of activity that the government of Canada has chosen for military operations," said Col. Gerry Mann, commander of one of three reserve brigade groups in Ontario.
"Wisely, the army has found a way of using the reservists to stretch out what we're capable of doing."
Reservists aren't ordered on overseas missions, but some choose to volunteer to join the regular forces, with the top soldiers selected to fill out a task force based on their abilities and military trades.
Mann said there are 200 reserve soldiers currently in Afghanistan. When Ontario's Land Force Central Area takes over the second rotation in 2008, it plans to triple that number, putting 600 reserves among the 2,500 Canadian troops in the country.
That's why the Ontario reserves' two-week summer exercise moved from Petawawa to Wainwright this year, to give the soldiers a more accurate level of training specific to the Afghan mission.
Exercise Maple Defender is a condensed version of Exercise Maple Guardian, the 39-day training all soldiers receive before deployment to Afghanistan.
"The last thing a solider sees when they leave for Afghanistan is Wainwright in their rearview mirror," said Capt. Tom St. Denis. St. Denis is the public affairs officer for the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC) - the official name for the portion of the base that has become Kandahar.
Lt. Ken McClure, a company commander with Sudbury's 2nd Battalion, Irish Regiment has submitted his name for deployment to Afghanistan. He and the other 2nd Irish troops in Alberta spent the exercise as part of Charlie infantry company.
McClure's first stint in the reserves was from 1985-1991. He returned again in October 2001, motivated by the 9-11 terrorist attacks. In a March 2006 interview with The Sudbury Star, McClure said his age (he was 38 at the time) meant he wasn't likely to volunteer for active duty. He has changed his tune since.
"I've sent young men off enough times already, so it's my turn," he said. "We (the 2nd Irish) have 10 guys on training for the next mission and still two more streams to go."
McClure, a financial planner with Dundee Wealth Management in Sudbury, said the mission in Afghanistan also holds an array of possibilities for him. The NATO force is not only there to fight the Taliban, but to help rebuild the nation - get relief and aid to Afghans, train a national army and police force, and foster stability.
"If I get elected (to the mission), I would depart to Afghanistan in July or August 2008. I'll be 40 at that time, and leading the fight is a young man's game," he said. "I'm a trained financial planner with degrees, and they might be able to use that as an asset. I might do more that way than as a 40-year-old platoon commander."
Compared to regular force soldiers who have chosen the army as a career, reservists have different considerations before volunteering a year of their lives to a mission - six months in work-up training and six months deployment.
Employers in Canada aren't legislated to grant a reserve soldier a year away for a mission like they are in the United States. McClure said he's fortunate his company is supportive, and his job would be secure if he's chosen.
Reservists walk on a teeter-totter. On one end is their desire to serve their country and put their training to use. The other is the need to move forward with their domestic lives. Like nearly every young reservist I encountered at CFB Wainwright, Cpl. Don Genoe, 23, and Pte. Alex Gavin, 22, of the 2nd Irish are trying to find that balance.
Both are students at Laurentian University. Genoe is moving onto the second phase of a concurrent bachelor of education after completing his BA, while Gavin is going into his first year of law.
"My education is my priority at this point," Genoe said.
"Likewise, I'm going to be in school for the next couple of years," Gavin said. "So, it probably won't be Afghanistan for me. But whatever comes after Afghanistan, for sure."
Belief in the mission in Afghanistan runs deep throughout Exercise Maple Defender, and it isn't lessened by the fact the majority of people on base aren't full-time soldiers.
The reserves are a desirable option for many, who want to fight for their country. Another 2nd Irish boy, Pte. Charles Michael, 23, began his military career in the regular forces, but after eight months opted to go to school. He came back to join the reserves slightly less than a year ago.
"I actually like the reserves more because you get to do the army stuff and the civilian-world stuff," he said. "You can get a job and have a social life at home."
But it hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for overseas missions.
"I just need more training, because I don't want to go there underprepared," he said. "If Canada does decide to keep troops there, I'd be there for sure. Reserves are getting in there a lot and I hope that keeps up."
McClure, Genoe, Gavin and Michael, along with the rest of Charlie company, were to get Monday night to rest and regroup after four straight days "outside the wire" of the main base. Tuesday morning, they were back in the field.
The opposition forces at Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre plot operations to coincide with Canadian forces movements to create the most havoc. They conduct ambushes, bomb attacks and military manoeuvres as the Taliban would, based on intelligence that comes back from Afghanistan.
Crucial elements of the NATO mission beyond the battlefront are recreated at Wainwright. Soldiers search villages for weapons caches, deliver aid, set up vehicle checkpoints and identify threats within the population or corruption among local officials. Actors and military personnel also play the parts of local leaders, representatives from NGOs and even journalists from Canadian media, CNN and Al-Jazeera. Soldiers have to interact with the players in the game, including communicating with Afghan villagers who only speak Farsi.
In the Belanday scenario, the suicide bomber was equipped with a blast of talcum powder that sprayed anyone within the scope of the bomb blast. The village's actors went into motion.
One of them was David Heacock from Edmonton, a 36-year-old professional actor employed by the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre. His face had been mostly hidden by a scarf until the bomber stepped near him and detonated. The right side of Heacock's face, transformed by special effects makeup, was revealed to be bloody and shredded.
"As the wounds get worse, we have the acting training to pull off the actual physical feeling," Heacock said. "I acted disoriented because I can't see out of one eye, and I was bleeding out, so I began to lose consciousness."
It's all to test how quickly the soldiers react to help the villagers, Heacock said. "So, the more believable you are, the more it helps them when they attend to you.
"It's the most realistic thing I've ever been in and it's an honour to do it."
It was the second straight day insurgent attacks had foiled the Canadian army's attempt to deliver aid to Belanday. Sgt. Edwards' plan to get supplies to his artillery troops who were stationed just a few kilometers north of the village was also disrupted. Our convoy was forced to turn around and head back to base under the threat of further attacks by opposition forces.
My mission was to get into the field and talk to Sudbury's reservists amid their 24-7 submersion in this war exercise.
But, like any military manoeuvre, logistics can be a battle of their own, even if it involves putting a journalist alongside the troops. My second attempt to make it into the field that night was also in vain when Bravo company left me and three other Ontario journalists behind on a midnight march, deciding the realism of the battle effort was more important than ensuring the safety of four embedded journalists.
The only option for operation commanders was to break the rules of the battle and ruin the cover of a number of soldiers in order to bring us back in.
My third attempt to get into the field Monday was scheduled for the end of a difficult attack on a mock cave complex. Success for the Canadian forces didn't come as easily as they had hoped. They ran into more opposition soldiers than expected, and we were sent back to base once again.
Only that night did Charlie company return to the base and I was able to talk with McClure, Genoe, Michael and Gavin.
Turns out, the Sudbury men were integral in retaking a bridge from Taliban insurgents two days earlier.
Because of the WES gear, the attack was a lesson in "identifying how you have to change your tactics," Genoe said.
When the section commander went down with a severe injury, Pte. Gavin was the first to administer medical aid, which can be done through the computer indicators in the Weapon Effects Simulation (WES) vests.
"I kept him alive for more than an hour," Gavin said. "But he died before the medivac helicopter arrived."
In the meantime, Genoe assumed command of the section.
"I was the next person in line, so I conducted the assault," he said. "So you can see how injury takes away manpower and even leadership, and you have to adapt."
Charlie company seized the bridge successfully.
"In the after-action review with leadership, they showed a visual with satellite imagery from the WES of us," Genoe said. "It could identify the people moving on the ground and show our tactics. We were very successful."
Genoe, a member of the 2nd Irish since 2001, saw some big differences between the exercises in Petawawa and Wainwright.
"It's helpful to train in a different environment, and we're using the same tactics that are being leached from lessons learned in Afghanistan," he said.
For the majority of Ontario reservists, the northern Alberta weather proved to be one of their biggest adversaries.
"It's almost been four seasons in one day," Genoe said. "(Sunday) we were worried about overheating and dehydration, and (Monday) we were more worried about hypothermia."
In fact, a number of troops from Charlie company were treated for hypothermia as a cold rain pounded down on the marching troops from midnight to noon on Monday. Some mentioned seeing snow.
"The weather was pretty miserable," Michael said. "It was kind of demoralizing, really, but we got through it. Because that's what we do."
McClure was one of the most experienced soldiers among his platoon "by two decades in most cases," he said. He was impressed, however, with how his youthful troops were able to identify a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) and work around the situation in the early days of the exercise.
IEDs are the biggest threat to the lives of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. In the last week, three Canadian soldiers have been killed by roadside IED attacks.
Hence, the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre stressed this element of training, something new for the reservists from Ontario.
"When we conducted the operation last year (at CFB Petawawa), I can't recall that we did any IED," Col. Mann said. "Out here, every day the soldiers go out, there is that IED threat. Every day we have eight to 12 IED threats that they could run across."
In the early days of the two-week exercise, the Canadian units suffered heavy casualties due to IEDs.
"Now the drills are becoming smoother, more routine and according to our doctrine," Mann said on Monday night, four days before the end of the exercise.
With reservists becoming a bigger part of Canada's force in Afghanistan, Mann believes the kind of training Maple Defender provides is essential to the development of Ontario's reservists.
"Any chance we can get our soldiers exposed to what they may see and feel in their involvement in a mission is going to increase their survivability," he said. "I'm convinced the WES system will help save soldiers' lives, especially after seeing what I have over the past week with our reservists."
As Sgt. Edwards and I rumbled back to Kandahar Air Field in the middle of the rebuffed convoy, his WES indicator began to beep.
He looked down to read 'near miss.'
"We're under attack," Edwards said.
Looking out the window, it was impossible to see where the attack was coming from and I couldn't help but wonder how troops in Afghanistan feel under this kind of stress, dealing with an enemy that doesn't stand and fight, but lies in wait, and the challenge they face if they weren't ready.
Accent runs every Saturday in The Sudbury Star.
Exercise Maple Defender
When: Aug. 11-24
Where: Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre, CFB Wainwright, Alta.
Who: 1,200 reservists from Ontario, including a handful from Sudbury-based 2nd Battalion, Irish Regiment.
What: Soldiers immersed 24 hours a day in exercises designed to replicate the Canadian forces mission to Afghanistan, including force-on-force combat, cordon and search exercises, improvised explosive device detection and humanitarian aid delivery.
Budget: $5.9 million
photos by trevor stewart/the sudbury star