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Soldier for a day with Exercise Collaborative Spirit

By Celina Ip

GARRISON PETAWAWA – I pulled on layers of camouflage gear, strapped on a full fighting order, tied up my boots, shouldered a large rucksack, snapped on a helmet and was handed a C-7 rifle.

 

I walked back out to join more than 60 others who were sporting full military combat gear and waiting to begin Exercise Collaborative Spirit.

It was Sept. 18 at 8:30 a.m., I was dressed in military gear, holding a rifle and standing within 1-Royal Canadian Regiment (1RCR) headquarters at Garrison Petawawa – I, Celina Ip, a journalist for the Pembroke Daily Observer – was going to learn how to be a soldier for a day.

I was taking part in Garrison Petawawa’s Exercise Collaborative Spirit which invites groups of local community members – between 60 to 80 participants each day, from Sept. 18 to 22 – to partake in a full day of activities to get a firsthand look at a day in the life of a Canadian Armed Forces soldier.

I was among the first group of participants that included other local journalists, city councillors, Petawawa Military Family Resource Centre staff, CANEX staff, Upper Ottawa Valley Chamber of Commerce staff, and local business executives among others.

Upon arriving at Garrison Petawawa after 8 a.m., all of the participants gathered together on bleachers inside the 1RCR headquarters and received a warm welcome from 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (2 CMBG) Commander Col. Michael Wright and 4th Canadian Division Support Group (4CDSG) commander Col. Louis Lapointe.

“Our goal today to try to give members of the community a better understanding of what we do every day. So after today, when you see a soldier you get a better appreciation for what they do and what's happening up in the base. Also, the soldiers love to show what they’re doing and demonstrate their skills to people like you who are interested,” said Lapointe.

After wishing us success on our mission to “destroy the enemy”, everyone was instructed to line up in three sections – yellow, blue or red – at the back of the building to gather their military gear and suit up for a long day of training and combat.

As we all signed our lives away on waiver forms and were handed C-7 rifles and heavy bags with combat gear, we looked at each other and laughed as we were all thinking similar thoughts of “this should be fun!”.

It really felt like we were gearing up to go into combat as we were rushed into putting on our heavy gear, with soldiers telling us “Pick up the pace!” and constantly reminding us to drink lots of water throughout the day or we’d get sick and dehydrated from the heat.

By the time we were all geared up, each section (yellow, red and blue) was divided into smaller groups of three and was assigned to a Royal Canadian Dragoons soldier who would be their Fire Team Leader.

I was in the yellow section and was teamed up with Star 96’s Megan Evans and PMFRC’s Allison Simmonds and our Fire Team Leader was Cpl. Jean-Philippe Bonenfant-Deguise.

Bonenfant-Deguise, or ‘BD’ for short, was there to serve as our chaperone and answer any questions we had as we began the first half of our day with Exercise Collaborative Spirit.

After being shuttled out in a fleet of military trucks, we arrived at our destination: the Royal Canadian Dragoons battle school.

As we stepped outside, we looked out onto the expansive field in front of us where there were nearly a dozen stations set up with RCD soldiers and different types of rifles that we’d each have a chance to fire off into the distance at the targets that were set up.

For many of us – including myself – this was the first time we had ever held and fired a rifle.

To save our eardrums, we were all instructed to wear ear plugs as we stepped onto the firing range and began our introduction with a Coyote Armoured Patrol Vehicle with which we each had a chance to step inside and fire off four 25 millimetre rounds – that sounds quiet from inside the vehicle, but is shockingly loud to anyone outside.

From there, we got a taste of small arms training as we were taught the proper way to shoulder, aim and fire with various small rifles – including a C-16 automatic grenade launcher, the C-7, C-9 and C-6.

We all felt a similar rush of adrenaline as we fired off the rounds, and the excitement helped us to temporarily forget about the intense heat and sweat we were all experiencing from under our heavy layers of gear.

After our exhilarating introduction to RCD’s battle school, we were treated to a typical ration lunch that soldiers eat when they’re out in the field.

We all picked up the brown-bagged lunches that ranged from chicken stew to spaghetti and meatballs or breakfast sausages. Inside the bags, each meal item was precooked and sealed in retort packages. Each of our bags also included an assortment of snacks and other items that included powdered coffee, sports drink mixes, trail mix, peanut butter, cereal, condiments, candy, chocolate, gum, a plastic spoon, a wet towelette and matches

Our team was the last to pick up our lunches, so by the time we sat down and opened up our packages, we only had about five minutes to eat a few bites before we were told that it was time to go.

We quickly packed everything up – stuffing our uneaten food in our pockets to save for later – strapped our helmets back on, grabbed our rucksacks, and followed everyone outside.

Here we found ourselves at the cam paint station where we were masking our faces with streaks of green, black and brown to help us hide in the field during attack missions.

Once our faces were ready for battle, we took photos with our Fire Team Leaders before we all had to thank them and say goodbye as we moved on to our battle training with 1RCR.

After a brief introduction into glass houses training for urban combat environments, we were told that we’d be flying out in a Chinook helicopter to the grounds where a number of soldiers were waiting for us.

The yellow section was the first to fly in the Chinook, and we could hardly contain our excitement as we boarded the aircraft and strapped ourselves in.

After a few minutes, the Chinook landed in a forested area where we were led towards an area with a number of light armoured vehicles and soldiers stationed alongside them.

Each of us was paired up with a soldier who was our “battle buddy” for the rest of the day and pairs were grouped together into rifle sections – each section with their own LAV.

My battle buddy was Master Cpl. Will Smith of 1RCR and he was the commander of our 23alpha rifle section.

While we waited for everyone else to arrive, I spoke to my battle buddy and he told me about the importance of organizing the annual Exercise Collaborative Spirit.

“It allows you guys to see what we really do and what we're covering out here are the basic of what we do – what we call our 'bread and butter'. For you to see how hard it is to do what we do and understand the type of person that it takes to do this job is very important to us. So what we want to portray is that we actually are working very hard and in turn are enjoying what we do,” said Smith.

Once everyone was grouped together, we marched off towards a large tent where a map was laid out on the ground and we received instructions for the urban operations attack we were about to begin, in order to liberate the Village of Ortona.

After the rundown, we rejoined our rifle sections and we followed our commanders’ orders as we headed towards Ortona.

Upon arriving, our mission was to clear out the buildings and destroy any enemies who crossed our paths.

“We're going to assault through smaller groups – our rifle sections – and we all have intricate jobs that need to be done along the way, such as marking doors and rooms that have been cleared with green to indicate to everyone else that's going to roll through there that it is in fact clear,” said Smith.

Using coloured smoke grenades to give us cover, we ran out into the village and entered the pitch dark building as our commanders ordered us to “cover left” and “cover right” as we stealthily cleared out the rooms, watched each others’ backs and fired off at any enemies around.

The urban operations attack was followed up by a mechanized attack in which all rifles sections rode their LAVs out into the Madawa Plains where we parked our vehicles before jumping out into the field to take part in the staged attack, armed with our C-7s.

Once we had destroyed the enemy during the mechanized attack, we shook hands with our battle buddies and marched back towards the awaiting military trucks that brought us back to 1RCR headquarters for the conclusion to Exercise Collaborative Spirit.

“It was eye-opening, a lot of fun and I can’t wait to shower when I get home,” laughed Allison Simmonds, deployment support programmer with the PMFRC. “I now have a better appreciation for what my husband does and I think every military spouse should have to do this because it would give them a better appreciation of what their spouse does on a daily basis.”

4CDSG commander Col. Louis Lapointe congratulated us on our successful completion of a day of intensive military training and then we eagerly changed out of our hot military fatigues before being treated to a delicious dinner buffet complete with a do-it-yourself s’mores.

After exchanging farewells with my Exercise Collaborative Spirit comrades, I was more than eager to take a shower and climb into bed – but I can definitely say that it was an amazing experience that I will never forget, and I would gladly do it again if I had the opportunity.

cip@postmedia.com