By: Stephen Ducharme
We were supposed to meet up with the platoon before dawn on the other side of the river.
Myself and three other journalism students had run the gauntlet of last-minute waivers, clearance from command and permission from our editor to come to Petawawa over the weekend to experience this.
The operation was called “Wolf Force”, an exercise for over 600 Canadian soldiers of the 33 Canadian Brigade Group to participate in a force-versus-force combat scenario.
It was also an exercise to acclimate troops to people such as myself, an embedded journalist, running alongside them with recorders, notepads and cameras. It was a learning experience for both sides.
Capt. Étienne Robelin, a man I had met the day before in headquarters had said, “river crossing is pretty ambitious.”
When we landed on the beach that following dawn, everyone was gone except for one group of soldiers.
It was a rag-tag unit, a collection of reservists driven in who hadn’t completed their swim test, which was a necessity for crossing the river on the zodiacs with the rest of the force.
We fell into line behind them and prepared to enter the combat zone. After a half-hour, we still hadn’t met up with the offensive.
The platoon ahead of us had forgotten to mark the trail. We were bunkered down in a bush trying to figure out what was going on. The gunfire hadn’t begun yet.
What’s worse, one of the soldiers had sprained his ankle and we were moving slowly. At this point our guide, master warrant officer Greg Snyder and myself decided to leave the unit and the other journalists to try and meet up with the leading offensive.
We heard our first pop of gunfire after 25 minutes of bushwhacking and a couple razorwire fences.
This was it.
As we crested a hill by the road I could finally see some smoke across a vast plain and well-concealed soldiers in the reeds.
I could also see the mission objective, which up to this point hadn’t been clearly defined to me.
This was intentional. Part of this whole operation, after all, was dealing with us. We had great guides: Snyder and Lt. Scott Atchison, men who worked hard to get us here but understandably had their own objectives in the exercise.
Part of that objective was operational security. They didn’t want us knowing too much about the logistics. It was my impression they hoped that by being embedded with troops we would focus more on the soldiers, many of which had used the reserves to pay for school.
Therefore the final objective wasn’t a priority in our previous day of briefings. But now that I could see it, our entrenched enemy in the clearing, I was starting to put things together in my mind.
As we looked across the plain, a rustle in the bushes across the road preceded a platoon. After they established a perimeter, a very stern man that looked the part of an executive officer took out his map and began explaining his strategy to subordinates.
After a quick conversation with another soldier, I was told that this was indeed a unit protecting a field commander. They would only be used at the end as the final offensive blow to the enemy.
Snyder and I took some photos and made our way a half-mile across the field to the front lines. The whole plain was blanketed in the acrid smoke of grenade and artillery analogs. The sound of blank rounds firing off was constant.
I could see two of my fellow journalists had made the battle as well. Atchison had found them and led them here. My other peer had been placed with the opposing forces but I couldn’t see her in the entrenchments.
Snyder and I began moving across the front line, taking photos. What started as a casual pace turned into a frantic run as we tried to stay ahead of the troops. I, at the very least, started to feel the adrenaline.
“Imagine if you were in Afghanistan, in a village, this would be total chaos,” said Snyder. I had asked him what differentiated this scenario from one you might find overseas.
By about 11a.m. the attack was over. The opposing force had either retreated or been eliminated. As platoons secured the objective they were determining if any hostiles had escaped.
Our guides got us back together and began ushering an executive commander over to us for a makeshift press conference in the battlefield. Lf.-Col. Commanding Kevin Maclean, a commanding officer over the operation, spoke on the skills reservists apply from these exercises in domestic roles, from ice storms to G8 summits.
We got in the press van and were driven back through the Petawawa base to a Tim Hortons’ shop. We sat down with Snyder and Atchison, thanking them for the experience. All that was left now was a drive back to Ottawa, trying to piece together what was shown to us.