Reservists get gritty look at realities of 21st-century military operations

PETAWAWA - As dawn broke over the misty rivers and forests of CFB Petawawa Friday, two platoons of Cameron Highlanders boarded Griffon helicopters for a simulated attack on a rebel-held bridge. It was the high point of a massive week-long exercise, literally and figuratively, for nearly 100 reservists from Ottawa. These soldiers, part of a company under the command of Maj. Derek Cheff of Ottawa's Governor General's Foot Guard, were among more than 3,000 reservists taking part in Operation Stalwart Guardian. The culmination of three years of planning and field exercises, this brigade-level exercise brought together soldiers from every reserve unit in Ontario, as well as several dozen from Canada's NATO allies, for a hard week of drills and blank ammunition exercises, ranging from raiding a terrorist camp to seizing trenches.

In addition to basic military skills, the reservists were given a good look at the difficulties of 21st-century military operations by more than 300 members of the Royal Canadian Regiment (1st Battalion).

The regular force soldiers played the role of enemy forces, then in after-action reviews helped their reserve counterparts understand the importance of such things as 360-degree awareness and security even for very small groups of soldiers in modern asymmetrical warfare. These are the problems now faced by Canadians in places like Afghanistan.

Reservists, or militia soldiers, serve and train part-time. They are an increasingly vital supplement to the regular forces, not only filling gaps within Canada, but typically making up about 20 per cent of any foreign rotation.

Ottawa militia soldiers on the Petawawa exercise include more than a few who have been on missions to Afghanistan and Croatia, as well as others hoping to get the opportunity.

One of the senior officers on this exercise is Ottawa's Lt.-Col. Mike Roach. The commanding officer of the Brockville Rifles, he was given command of an entire brigade at Stalwart Guardian.

"It's very important for the soldiers here to understand that they themselves will get a call to volunteer for service" in missions such as the one pushing into Kandahar, and that reservists "can, and must be ready to respond," he said.

Some reservists have less than six months service. Scott Roy, 23, joined the Cameron Highlanders in February, and has spent most of the summer in the field, learning basic military skills and sleeping in a tent, eating military rations and learning to function amid the fatigue and chaos of military operations.

Stalwart Guardian gave soldiers like the Camerons' 17-year-old Josh Bouchard a chance to see how the skills they've acquired in small-unit training work in a much larger exercise involving light infantry, artillery, engineers, intelligence and combat service support, as they carry out a sequence of widely separated raids, helicopter landings and assaults.

Stalwart Guardian was designed to teach post-Cold War combat. Its underlying scenario involved enemy forces composed partly of soldiers from a collapsed enemy regime, like those of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, and partly of irregular forces like al-Qaeda, who might not wear uniforms or defend fixed positions and who are more likely to try to attack soft targets like supply convoys and civilian contractors than a rifle platoon.

Reservists who qualify for an international tour must spend six more arduous months training with the regular forces' unit they will accompany overseas. Reserve training is designed to get them ready for the transition.

When asked whether he'd consider putting his name down for a tour in Kandahar, Mr. Roy's eyes lit up. He plans to, he said, and hopes to put his training to good use. Mr. Bouchard agreed. Going to Afghanistan "is my duty," he said.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson