By: Michelle Ferguson
I dropped my bags, turned around and ran.
Fumbling with my recorder and clutching my camera as best I could, I sprinted across the open field towards the sound of machine guns firing — something I never thought I’d be able to say.
That’s when I realized “(Insert long list of four letter words here)… I need the long lens.”
I tried to play it cool, but since I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the enemy forces in their civilian dress, I had to tell Lt. Scott Atchison, the public affairs officer who was accompanying me, that I had to go back. There are only so many silhouette pictures you can take.
So, tail between my legs, I made my way back towards the trenches where I had left my camera bag and the long lens I so desperately needed to capture the attack.
As I raced back into action, it became very clear that something was wrong…
Earlier that day…
“Time to get up,” I heard, as someone shook my foot.
As groggy as I was, I was just happy I had fallen back asleep after our 12:30 a.m. wake-up call.
A mere three hours after snuggling up under their ground sheets, the guys and gals of 33 Territorial Brigade Group were up and about, prepping themselves for battle. As they ate their very-early-morning breakfast, they had no pity for the four journos sleeping in cots under in the comfort of the headquarters tent.
I’m not complaining though. Especially not after having spoken to the reconnaissance guys later that morning. Their day started at 1930 hrs, the night before.
And they didn’t have an easy go at it either — constantly under attack while they scouted the enemy’s position, looking for ways to infiltrate their defenses.
“They were making it as realistic as they could, which is great for us,” said 2nd Lt. Mike Hart. “It made our job extremely difficult.”
“But that makes it more fun,” he added.
All packed up, we piled into the press van — identified by a white piece of string dangling from the antenna.
Since we were the only ones who got to sleep in, we had to go without breakfast. Or so we thought.
As we made our way through the maze of dirt roads in search of the troops, a truck stopped us.
“You guys want some rations?” asked the officer. We happily obliged.
I was excited to put some food in my belly — even if it was a cold, packaged mushroom omelette.
Apparently I’m braver than most soldiers. While I took two bites out of the brownish sponge-like egg, most soldiers wouldn’t even have broken the seal.
After dropping off my classmates, Atchison and I continued down the maze of dirt roads to meet up with the “enemy force” — in this case, the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa.
It was still dark when the flares started going off.
Those in a defensive position use the flares when they suspect they are under attack, Atchison told me as we hurried down the road, anxious to get there before the attack was launched. He also told me that everyone on defense must stand to on first and last light, because that’s when people like to attack.
Makes sense, I thought.
While we continued to drive, I noticed a heavy smoke rolling across the battlefield — a diversion tactic used by the opposing force to throw off the enemy, said Atchison.
I was now behind enemy lines.
Here, I was briefed about defensive tactics.
While I knew, and all my classmates knew, and almost 600 other soldiers knew, that the plan was to flank from the right using assault boats, the enemy had no idea where the attack was going to come from.
They did make some educated guesses though.
“We’re looking forward,” said Sgt. Chris Ouellet, who was entrenched on the west side of the field. His platoon was tasked with making sure no one came down the road. “We expected the enemy to come from the front. They might be coming from the right.”
“What happens if they come from the right?” I asked, glancing over to Scott, who had instructed me all of 10 minutes prior not to let on about the opposing force’s plans.
That’s why they had Sgt. Jeanne Robitaille , an engineer with 33 Combat Engineer Regiment. She was tasked to the enemy force to create obstacles for the attacking force.
“In this scenario we had pickets and concertino wire, which are these round razor types of wire, and we just closed off a few sections over there, in the field — blocking the enemy to go south, so that that way they can’t go south. They have to come around.”
“So within your line of fire?” I asked.
But like I said, things didn’t exactly go as planned.
“They’re not even fucking reacting,” I heard one soldier say, as I ran back towards the hill where I had left Atchison.
“What do you think, sir?” I heard another shout.
“They really don’t know how to play the game,” the other continued.
Apparently our attackers had either dismissed or destroyed an entire (fictitious) enemy battalion as they made their way through the south side of the hundred-acre field we were defending.
After a few of the enemy forces were hit we started to give a bit of ground.
At that point, I had set my pesky camera bag down again. I turned sheepishly to Atchison. “Hopefully I can find it,” I said.
I learned two important lessons that weekend. The first being: never leave your camo-coloured camera bag in the middle of a hundred acre field.
The second: that journos and soldiers really aren’t all that different. We both thoroughly enjoy adventure, a crude sense of humour and a good cup of Joe — Tim Hortons, to be precise.
I never thought I would be so unfazed by the sound of shells hitting the ground or machine guns shooting rounds, but I just wanted the shot or the quote.
My trip to CFB Petawawa opened up a whole different facet of journalism I had never really considered before.
And maybe it’s just the adrenaline talking, but on the record, I would go back in heartbeat.