Sunday, October 9, 2011

Brigade Training Event - Phoenix Ram 2005


A short story of the Brigade Training Event (BTE) I attended at CFB Wainwright in October 2005. As you are probably already aware, Canada currently has a reducing role in Afghanistan. At the time though we were in the process of sending an additional 1500 troops to Kandahar as part of TF-06 in February where they would supplement the Canadian troops moving out of Kabul.

I was to be attached to ‘A’ Company, 1st Mechanized Infantry Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) as a translator. I spent a lot of time as a passenger on board our GM manufactured Light Armoured Vehicles (LAV III) and our new Mercedes ‘G” Wagons which now replace the tired Volkswagen Iltis Jeep. There were three companies in the 1st Mechanized.

The Lord Strathacona Light Horse and the Royal 22nd Regiment (22e) (vingt-deuxième) were also in attendance for the BTE as they’re time is also coming to a close here in Canada.

This was a 5000 person strong brigade level training event. The purpose is to get our soldiers thinking along the NATO adopted strategy of the 3-tier war.
1. War Fighting
2. Humanitarian Assistance
3. Peace Keeping

I was attached to a CIMIC team for the BTE. All CIMIC members are reservists; in fact 30% of the forces going to Afghanistan are comprised of the Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve.

Canadian Rangers were deployed to role play civilians. Our job was to make it as real as possible and to observe how the Canadian Troops reacted to our needs. Depending on how the Troops reacted the civilians would react. For example if a CDN tank rolled over my chicken coop and killed all of my chickens I would not be friendly to the Canadian Troops unless compensated. If the Canadian Troops ignored wounded civies, our entire village would start supporting the insurgents and stop helping the Canadians. Therefore the treatment of civilians was an important aspect of the BTE.
Here is a little background to the theatre.

A Soviet bloc state previously known as ‘Canola’ dissolved after the Communist wall fell. Canola broke into four independent countries soon afterwards. Two of the four independent states are called ‘Stromia’ and the other ‘Tartan’. Stromia is ethnic Anglican and ‘Tartan’ is ethnic Muslim.

Stromia has adopted the western society culture and listens to the same pop music, embraces the arts, international sports, diversity and education. Their industry and economy are doing well and their standard of living is steadily on the increase. Their youth are educated and hard working and are very happy.

Tartan has avoided change and enjoyed being a soviet bloc state. Tartan infrastructure is poor and their economic system is a shambles. Tartans believe that times were better when they were under Communist rule, life was easier. Agriculture was their biggest bringer of funds to the state but was recently discovered to contain BSE. Their primary industry has crashed. They look at Stromia’s success as an unfair acceptance by Europe and believe that Tartan has been condemned.

In the last year a massive oil reserve was found just in the Stromian side of the border (which has been in dispute with Tartan since it was established). This oil reserve represents the largest in-land European supply posing to skyrocket Stromia into an economic power. Tartan isn’t having any of this.

90% of Stromia’s Armed Forces are ethnic Tartan by birth. Several Divisions revolt and take up the Tartan cause. A civil war starts and Stromia is losing. NATO comes in to the theatre to stabilize the situation. Germany, Britain, USA and Canada represent the NATO Coalition. The new tartan Army is a highly professional modern army but the coalition manages to drive the Tartan forces almost back to their own lines (but at heavy cost). The Germans, Americans and British have exhausted their ability to move forward. Fuel is also in low supply. Canada is asked to remove Tartan forces and quell the active insurgency in the hot zone known as the Wainwright Corridor (around the oil rigs and pumping stations). Three major Villages reside within the Wainwright Corridor and each of them looks at the coalition forces differently.

 Village of Six Hills (mainly ethnic Stromian – supportive and happy to see coalition forces) Rangers from BC Detachment
 Village of Vernonburg (ethnic tartan & Stromian – neutral) Rangers from Manitoba Detachment
 Village of Bisonville (ethnic Tartan – aggressive) Rangers from Alberta Detachment

In addition to these three villages there were numerous farm settlements manned by four rangers each. Each Farm had a truck and farmers conduct regular visits to the villages for supplies, materials, equipment, etc… This was done to provide lots of traffic to compound trouble for the Canadian Forces. In addition none of the villagers or Farmers spoke English (or French). This is where the translators start to become important. Translators were a highly sought after commodity and from a personal perspective I observed CF members disputing who got me and who didn't.

Rangers arrived at CFB Wainwright and underwent four days of training to prepare for the role. We were given our assignments half way through. Certain Rangers (Farmers and a few Villagers) had to take a 2-day safe driving course (404) and were assigned new rental trucks. Some of us studies our role playing material, background details, names of important ethnic figureheads etc… Our OC and WO picked specific Rangers to be translators. They knew these rangers would be embedded within the Battalion so they wanted rangers they felt confident in.

There were nine of us assigned to translator duties. We arrived bright and early at Operations centre (dressed in civies) and were assigned from there. Five of us were assigned to 1st battalion because they represented the most significant land force. The other four went to Battalion HQ and the vingt-deuxième regiment.

Our ride arrived. A Master Corporal carrying a C7A2 from the SALH talked to my Group SGT major and off we went. We stowed our gear on top of a Mercedes ‘G’ wagon and started driving down a dusty gravel road for about an hour. We arrived at the 1st Mechanized field HQ to a an area bustling with soldiers quickly setting up their hoochies. The bivouac area are  very lively. In the back ground a bunch of officers and senior NCO’s eyed us up as they were having an ‘O’ Group. We were directed to the HQ tent and waited for someone to talk with us.

A female Captain exited the tent and looked at us strangely. “Are you the translators?” ‘Yes’ we all responded in unison. “Great, stay there I’ll be right back” She went back inside the HQ tent and soon after an argument erupted within the tent. It sounded like some one wasn’t going to get a translator and they weren't very happy about it. We looked at each other with raised eye-brows as it dawned on us that we were going to be very busy.

The captain soon came back out and motioned for us to enter the tent. We provided them some of our character info and signed a form with our service number, unit and full name. After this exercise we were assigned to our new units. We were split up between A, B & C company of the 1st mechanized infantry battalion. I would find out later on that one of our rangers was treated quite poorly by ‘C’ company however I suspect that he never really got a feel for his character nor threatened to walk out on them unless his conditions were improved. ‘A’ company and ‘B’ company were great people however I was fully prepared to manipulate anyone in order to be treated with respect and have some comforts. After-all I just heard the officers fighting over-us which meant we ‘Held Value’.

For the next 5 hours I would again practice the haunting Army skill of ‘Hurry up and Wait”. My Warrant Officer warned me about ‘Hurry up and Wait’.

Most troops (myself included) were suffering from the Wainwright bug. Soldiers from all over Canada had arrived in short order to attend this training exercise and they brought with them every conceivable bug from their part of the planet. Many soldiers were quite ill and I was no exception. I visited the medic and obtained some strong decongestants because my sinuses were blocked solid and had a very sore throat. I was concerned that the cold / dry and windy weather combined with this virus would get the best of me. I however soldiered on through the discomfort and completed what was expected of me without incident. I did however manage to bring some pain killers which helped me through-out the exercise. Sanitation is of high importance when in field camp. All soldiers MUST wash their hands prior to entering the kitchen or cafeteria tent otherwise someone is bound to shout at you. My pockets were bulging with materials to blow my nose on and my obviously diseased state provided me with ample room at the dinner table.

I also under close obervation by most soldiers because I looked different in my civy dress, was of older disposition and generally possess a stern appearance. I suppose this is because they did not understand my role. I also over heard some soldiers talking about the Rangers sitting at the table next to me. They were unaware that a Ranger was sitting right next to them (namely me). One of these soldiers was attempting to describe what the Rangers were all about (he seemed to know a little). Soldiers had been told that the Rangers were playing civilians previously during an exercise briefing. Most of them had never seen or heard of the Rangers. I had to laugh because we were being built up quite a bit by this chap. Here are a few excerpts “Expert Riflemen” “Professional Bushmen” “Live off the land” “We need the Rangers”.   I walked away feeling good about being a Ranger and that someone out there knows a little about us. It was nice to hear regardless.

Later-on outside the kitchen shack I found someone whom grew up in Kitimat and was now a veteran of Bosnia and a few other lovely places. His name was Gordon and he was a Corporal with the Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE). We reminisced about Kitimat the mutual people we knew over a cigarette and a coffee, bid each other good luck and returned to our respective assignments.

That night I was introduced to my team whom I would spend the remainder of the exercise with. The CIMIC WO and two Captains and myself shared the same tent that night. It was tight quarters and I apologized for my unhealthy condition and they all seemed very accepting. As far as I could tell no-one snored that evening. It was cold and windy at night. The tent struggled against the wind but usually by morning all was calm (but very cold -15o Celsius).

The G-Wagons (Mercedes Jeeps) were fairly new to the CDN Armed Forces at that time. They are quite small but have a tremendous amount of clearance. They are running 16” rims and 12-ply tires (quite aggressive) tall and skinny. They have a 5-cylinder diesel engine  and diesel heaters.

After camp was broken and our gear was stowed for the journey ahead of us we had another 5 hours to wait until we set-off. Timings, timings and more timings. O groups were occurring everywhere but nothing I really needed to worry about because I was not invited, the info was not for my ears and, hey, I’m only a  Stromian translator.
Finally the leager was assembled and we were off (after dark had set). The idea at this point is a 4 hour journey in full tactical mode (red lights and dampened head lights) along dirt roads. I had to eventually wrap my shemagh around my head and face  because the dust was very thick. I suppose there is always a downside to travelling behind tanks and light armoured vehicles (they make a lot of dust). Nothing I’m not used to however because logging trucks do the same thing.

After four hours and a tired crew we found a suitable location to layout the company in the field. Its stressful driving in poor conditions in full tactical mode – easy to hit the stopped vehicle in front of you between the darkness and dusty conditions.
I set-up my ground sheet, put up a shelter half and jumped into my arctic sleeping bag inside my bivy sack. Other than hacking and coughing I had a good nights sleep. I awoke at 0430 hrs and was back in the jeep shortly there-after. We were about to enter the combat zone.

Anyhow we were back in leager formation and heading down the road and cross country. Our CIMIC team was called out of the leager by the company commander to a specific grid reference along a tree-line and so off we went (there were no roads). The Company Commander gave us orders to relocate to a road intersection where a reconnaissance platoon discovered a series of wandering villagers. They are being held under armed protection and are waiting our arrival at a specific grid reference. Go find out what is going on and report back.

Off we went. We reached the location, the Captain and I proceeded towards the villagers (all Rangers) headed by a great WO by the name of Chris Patterson. Once we had established some trust by promising to protect them, WO Patterson told a story involving tartan soldiers dressed in civilian clothing (insurgents) taking over and occupying the Village of Six Hills. To make a point they lined up Ten villagers and shot them each in the back. A number of the murdered victims were husbands, wives, brothers and sisters of these villagers. A percentage of the villagers panicked and fled the village on foot. These villagers were out looking for those that fled to make sure they were safe.

At that time the sound of small weapons fire went off in the distance and the rece platoon spread out and went to ground in a defensive posturing. Canadians had engaged a small group of insurgents not far from our location at that time. It was decided that this was no longer a safe place to be. The villagers would be moved to a safer location. Before we shipped out, after some convincing, we managed to obtain the rough number of insurgents occupying the village and had drawn an map of the town displaying locations of mines, barbed wire, machine gun nests and number of tanks (BMP’s and T72’s). While the villagers were scared that talking to the Canadians might jeopardize the safety of their families we were able to convince them that the insurgents and the tartan Army would be defeated by the Canadian Troops and that we had their safety in our best interests. We also told the villagers that we would bring the people that committed these crimes to justice. It would become a common practice attempting to convince the native population that the Canadians would protect them. The Canadian Rangers and their role-playing was working very well.

It was now 1400 hrs and we were receiving new orders and a new location. The area had been cleared of insurgent forces and we were to move to a new location. The leager reformed and by nightfall we had finally arrived. Two other potential previous locations were looked at but the company commander was not happy with the defensive attributes of the terrain so we moved onwards.

By night everyone was tired. Our CIMIC team had one two-burner Coleman stove which did not work. I knew how to fix it but they would not let me. I suppose they thought I might try to make it worse? The stove simply needed a new generator and I advised them of such but they weren’t interested in remedying the situation. So we ate cold IMP meals for the remainder of the exercise.

I was awakened the next morning at 0300 hrs (“Translator, it’s time to wake up”). I got up, packed my gear away, grabbed a cold IMP and followed Captain Marlow over to a Light Armoured Vehicle. The rear door opened and we got in. There were five soldiers in the Armoured vehicle. After jumping in that made seven with gear and there was no room to spare.. It was too early, no one introduced themselves, they were all sleep deprived. The LAV III set off. Destination and Mission unknown (at least to me)

This was the Section Commander’s LAV III. A Warrant Officer in the back of the LAV appeared to be the only person awake other than myself or Captain Marlow. The WO was standing on the rear seat with his head out the aft top hatch. I didn’t mind the fresh air.

After about an hour of this the Warrant Offer re-entered the LAV and closed the hatch. A few minutes went by and the true meaning of being mechanized infantry struck me like a ton of bricks. The intense aroma of unwashed soldiers and Ass filled the LAV. While it was quite an unfortunate smell I thought that I would use this opportunity to break the silence that pervaded over us. “Does anyone here have an air freshener?” I said this with a big smile on my face. A number of the lads chuckled and the Warrant Officer laughed. “You’ll get used to it bud” he replied.

The LAV was warm, the seats were hard but the suspension was lovely. We were travelling at high speeds across open country and the ride was soft. Very nice compared the G-Wagons I had been driving in. The legs start to lose circulation after four hours of travelling in cramped quarters. You have to try and reposition every once in a while even though there is no room to reposition.

The com speaker suddenly cracked on and everyone started getting ready. The LAV commander was getting his guys ready for something. The LAV stopped, turned and then stopped again. The darkness inside the LAV was over ridden by blinding sunlight as the hydraulic ramp lowered . “RAMP UP” over the coms before I knew it I was taking cover in the middle of an active war zone.

Soldiers were yelling, some screaming , tanks were shooting, squad automatic weapons were running full tilt - I hadn’t even had a morning cup of coffee. Although I knew these soldiers were shooting blanks it didn’t seem to lessen the sensation of concern for my general well-being. I proceeded with quick caution and kept my head down. I soon found out that I was now directly involved in the assault on the  village of Vernonburg.

While weapons fire was still exchanging Captain Marlow and I left the ridge and proceeded down to the periphery of the village while keeping a low profile. We started moving wounded civilians to a safer location. We also managed to get some information from these civilians on the makeup of the town and what civilians were doing prior to the attack. Apparently most villagers were in church when the attack came.

Referee’s wearing black with a white cross around their chest walked freely within the fire fights and assigned casualty tags to soldiers that were evidently wounded by either being in the wrong place at the wrong time or were just taking unwise risks. There were a lot of casualties but they were mainly insurgents. It was surreal to be in the middle of a firefight only to see a referee walk right through the middle of it without concern.

A corporal ran up to and advised us that the SGT Major needed us. We followed closely and arrived at a location just inside the town walls. When we arrived we observed a lady in her mid-50’s giving the SGT Major a hard time. She was extremely loud and very abusive. The expression on the Sgt Major’s face was that of a man on the edge of taking drastic measures to silence this lady. She was speaking in Deni language which comes the Indians of Northern Manitoba. No-one had a clue what was going on or what she was trying to tell them. I knew exactly what the Rangers were doing – good on them! The soldiers sometimes forgot they were in a foreign land and did not know the language. This is where I come in. We peeled the woman off the SGT Major – he seemed very relieved. He went on his way to fight a war which was what he needed to be doing.

I spoke to the woman (her name was Lucy) and whispered in her ear “I’m a Ranger and I’m a translator – speak to me in English and I will pass it on to these Army guys”. She smiled and then the acting started.

To my dismay Lucy started shouting and yelling at me (instead of the Captain) with a voice that made me want to crawl under a log and hide. Somehow I feel that Captain Marlow was satisfied with this set-up and didn’t mind not getting yelled at for once. The captain had learned from his dealings in Bosnia to make eye contact with the person speaking even if he didn't understand them. It makes the communication more heart felt and not impersonal by looking at the translator. However Lucy shouted at me regardless.

Lucy explained (very loudly) that her daughter was in church when the fighting started and she didn’t know where she was. She demanded that the Canadians find her NOW! We tried to remove her from her current location. We were partially exposed to enemy fire and it was unsafe. She refused to move. We tried to take cover behind the building and coax her into moving to safety. She wouldn’t move, in fact we had to restrain her because she was going to walk into the fire fight to find her daughter herself (which might endanger Canadian Soldiers let alone herself). She demanded, she fought us, she screamed at us – a very good acting job no matter how annoying she was. When she swore I had to swear so that the translation was clear. She had the mouth of dagger.
“Captain”, she says, “You’re a stupid prick and your mother mated with a goat you stupid son of a bitch – I WANT TO FIND MY DAUGHTER!”. (Thank goodness Captain Marlow had a sense of humour).

We finally came to a compromise. Canadians had almost taken control of the entire village. Reports of cleared sectors were coming in, one of which was the sector around the church. We obtained a description of the daughter from Lucy and we send 2 Canadians out to look for her. They came back 10 minutes later and spoke with captain Marlow personally (I could not over-hear what they were saying over the annoying, back breaking squawking of Loud Lucy). Marlow rejoined Lucy and I and removed his helmet so Lucy could clearly see his face and with a sincere look of sadness informed Lucy that her daughter had been shot and killed. At that point the village vicar had arrived and consoled Lucy. We managed to get Lucy to the safe zone and carry on with other business.

After the village was secured a group of civilians had to be addressed. This time I was attached to a major (Captain Marlow kept me within sight) and we talked to the civies. We handed out chocolate bars and snacks and informed them that food and water was on the way. Their wounded was being taken care of and that they would now be under the Care of the Canadian Troops until their country was safe from the insurgents. The crowd was pleased and the adrenalin rush was starting to wear off.
The village was well fortified by the previously occupying insurgents. Sandbag fortifications were everywhere and the ground was littered with spent brass. In addition the smell of burnt powder and smoke grenades was still very strong; even 30 minutes after the battle had ended.

Insurgents were behind barbed wire and armed sentries stood guard over them.
Now the senior commanders (British and American Senior Officers were observing) all gathered inside of a tent and had a debriefing on how the attack went. We were not privy to that discussion. The lowest Rank I saw walk into that tent was Full Colonel.

One Village Down – Two to Go.
Little did I know at the time that the Village of Six Hills was currently under attack by the Royal 22nd Regiment. The day was not yet over. But that is another story.
We rejoined the leager later that afternoon which had moved to the Village of Six Hills. We had orders to interface with the Villagers there. Apparently the intelligence we had gathered from WO Patterson’s group of civilians the day previous proved very useful. Very few civilian casualties occurred during the attack and the enemy was effectively wiped out. Our team received acclaim from several officers afterwards for obtaining this information. In fact one armour rece Captain (Call sign: One One) told me that he was becoming a believer in CIMIC and that perhaps we might just ‘Work Out’.

The Village of Six Hills looked a little beat up. The enemy forces had certainly dug themselves in and reinforced their positions. The enemy forces had since been removed but their fortifications remained.

The Village still had mine fields surrounding it so access was restricted to pretty much everyone until cleared. The villagers seemed happy to see the Canadians however a Strom Oil executive was very eager to get oil moving again very quickly. His office had been completely destroyed, his pumps were barely putting out 2 barrels a day and he was concerned that his facility might be booby trapped.

There were all sorts of issues to be dealt with as described by the Mayor of Six Hills (Ranger Papps). Water had to be trucked in because the Village reservoir had been destroyed and the water tainted. Babies had diarrhoea and people were getting ill because winter was coming but there was no heat, etc…. So there were obvious challenges and it was a busy time.

And that was only the first two days of this month long BTE.
Richard Kean