Helmets off to the troops in green

Canadians are so out of touch with the military some don't know a warrant officer from a brigadier general. Uh, including me. Within five minutes of reaching the media trailer on a recent visit to CFB Petawawa, I greet Gen. Gary O'Brien as ranking below a lieutenant. Strange. The media relations people seem tense. I was told I was addressing the OCE of Operation Stalwart Guardian, but filed it under HWT (Huh? What's That?) because I am an RCJ (Really Clueless Journalist). It meant he was the Officer Commanding the Exercise of more than 3,000 soldiers from all the reserve regiments in Ontario practising large-scale modern military operations (brigade-level, for those who know sergeant is a rank and sergeant-major is a job and that warrant officers are in some ways more important than generals but clam up when generals are about). Where there's that much food, vultures gather. Enter the media on Tuesday, Aug. 23.

Wednesday morning we rise early for a lovely stroll in the woods. Of nine kilometres. Followed by a frenzied assault on a trench and bunker system. But first, brekky. And my first encounter with an IMP, or Individual Meal Pack. Last year at Fort Drum, New York, for a Brockville Rifles urban warfare exercise (officially FIBUA, for Fighting In a Built-Up Area but one sergeant called it FISH, or Fighting In Somebody's House, and sergeants know stuff), we had to subsist on American MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) because mad cow kept Canadian food out. The Canadians kept saying IMPs were better, easy to believe while eating MREs. But now my wife hands me a piping lukewarm foil package, which I wrestle open to encounter a Pressed Object in Fluid. Later someone claims it was a ham steak. I say it sure didn't look like one. He smiles. "Welcome to the army."

Unfortunately for a journalist seeking a comic angle, the other IMPs I encounter are quite edible. The pork in cream sauce and the shepherd's pie go well with hunger, while Friday's breakfast is genuinely good. So let me be fair. It's easy to complain, but making almost imperishable, nutritious, energy-packed hash browns and sausages in foil that are even passable once immersed in hot water is almost miraculous.

This stuff is actually worked out pretty well. You can do a lot of things to soldiers but you cannot underfeed them. The army is even, after long resistance, starting to issue "Camel packs," knapsack-style water bags with hoses. I had already noticed all sergeants-major seem to have them and they know even more than ordinary sergeants. And everyone has "tac vests" so excellent I wish I had to carry enough things to justify buying one. I mocked, and mock, the Clothe the Soldier program's hunt for a combat bra; try the MEC, I say again. But this vest is really cool.

Meal break over. Resume fun. For our comfort and convenience, the Public Affairs Office (PAffO) gives us flak jackets that weigh about 20 pounds when we start out and at least 50 when we reach the bridge and the clowns tasked with capturing it are ahead of schedule so instead of an hour break to sit, eat and swear we run across it. A colleague filming for CTV unaccountably fails to recognize the green sweaty lumps trying to shake her hand.

Say, this helmet's pretty heavy, too. And there's a pungently sour stench and strange glowing colour. Not porta-potties but acrid purple and yellow smoke grenades. Seems the better, white ones are too unhealthy for training. Kaff. I discover the crumbly walls of a sand trench are easier to get down than up. My vest weighs 800 pounds. A soldier hears I'm media and ploughs past me. I discover the crumbly walls of a sand trench taste bad.

Once the bunkers are taken, we discover the IMP bread, which Tuesday night was hard and dry, has become sweet, tender and delicious. I'm in the road holding a big piece dripping with honey, when momma bear and three cubs saunter out of the forest 20 metres away. Hey, everyone. Let's play spot the dumb civilian.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we make prime pests of ourselves. See, we really really want to go on the Friday morning helicopter ride but it requires safety training at a time we can't manage. Finally, 400 Squadron Capt. Mark Horstead accommodates us. It turns out you only need to know 10 things. First, do not impale yourself on the sharp objects at the front of the helicopter as they are air intake pipes essential to the operation of the engine. Two, do not walk into the rear rotor as it is like a six-foot buzz saw except way more dangerous. Three, board the aircraft in an orderly manner, securing your own seatbelt without sitting on the one next to you. Four: Do not undo your seatbelt in flight. Five, six, seven and eight: DO NOT UNDO YOUR SEATBELT IN FLIGHT even after you hear the words "One minute to landing." Nine: Do not undo your seatbelt on touchdown because if they don't like the spot and lift off again you could get walloped by the skid. 10: Once you hear the flight engineer shout "Go, go, go" undo your gol-durn seatbelt, when the first guy off lies down two paces from the helicopter facing forward, do the same with your right leg on top of his left and once he gives a thumbs up and the helicopter zooms away stand up after making sure you're not stepping into the skids of an incoming helicopter and get your butt out of there before the mortar rounds hit. Point 10 is a bit complicated. I hope I will do it right. There are no real mortar rounds but the guys we are with are practicing for very real.

Friday morning we assemble in a field by "Oh-five-hundred" for a 6 a.m. chopper flight. Thinks: it wouldn't be the military if you didn't get to stand around cold, tired and bored for at least an hour.

Bad news. Our "chock" on this flight includes two journalists and a general. It's bad for the sergeant who must keep us out of the rear rotor. And bad for me because I'm in a jump seat facing an open door with the general I called a warrant officer sitting behind and to my right. Whaddaya bet he shoves me out and I become a really embedded journalist?

Good news. He can't make it. So I calmly board the helicopter, muff the seatbelt bit, and eventually get secured for a breathtakingly beautiful ride. At twice treetop height, I see dawn clouds reflected in lakes and rivers beneath a blanket of mist. Awesome. All the trouble taken by PAffO was worth it for us.

As we approach the LZ (Landing Zone), a bird departs as fast as his wings will carry him. Hey, bird, it's OK. This base is a bird sanctuary. I SAID IT'S A ... Never mind. We land safely, the rotors blow grit into my hair so hard it embeds in my scalp and we march a kilometre through dense forest to the bridge. Our platoon guards the road despite the crucial "platoon warrant" being distracted by two pesky journalists. The bridge is taken in splendid form on the last day of a long exercise. Everyone is elated but exhausted and hopes like heck they won't have to do it again. After a long, dull break we get the word. Do it again. The IMPs finally arrive. Mr. Hot Sun has been here for hours. Revealing suicidal thoughts to the medic doesn't get anyone excused. A general decided three years ago this attack would be done twice on this final day and nothing can stop it short of the base catching fire.

Which it does. The RCR regulars playing the enemy force take off for a real fire-fight, down by our old LZ. We drink six litres of water each and do an AAR. In today's kinder, gentler Canadian military each exercise is followed by an After Action Review. I am handed a little green AAR aide-memoire card. It is "Not an assessment," "Nobody has all the answers" and "Process belongs to training audience, not the facilitator." Are camouflaged sociologists lurking in these woods?

It turns out AARs are valuable, especially at Stalwart Guardian where many troops are so green they're chartreuse, in helping privates understand what their section and platoon leaders were trying to do and why. Including how confusion arises and how to combat it. No wonder the military has so many SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) to make chaos manageable. Imagine what your job would be like if you had to do it exhausted in a forest with bad people hurling high explosives right at your head.

These guys work incredibly hard and their kit weighs a ton. I admire them, and think I understand a lot of it better now. Though not the Pressed Object in Fluid.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson