One journalist's musings about the beautiful, bizarre world in which we live
Last autumn, I helped load an injured Afghan woman into a truck after a “suicide bomb.”
This autumn, I was carried on someone’s back to a hospital during an “attack,” after I “seriously injured my leg.”
Training time again – “Journalism in Conflict Zones” in Wainwright, Alberta.
* * *
Every few months, the Canadian Forces hold a war zone simulation, training soldiers how to deal with things they may encounter in the field.
Using actors, lasers, fake blood and pyrotechnics, the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre in Wainwright mimics bombings, rebel attacks and tense village politics.
For about two weeks, soldiers live in the simulation non-stop, dealing with problems as they would in real life.
Last year, the Maple Guardian training exercise was set in Afghanistan, preparing Canadian military personnel for what they would see there. But Canada’s not in Afghanistan anymore in a combat role.
As such, October’s Maple Resolve saw CFB Wainwright transform into “West Isle,” a fictional island that was geographically like Haiti, historically reminiscent of many places and linguistically Spanish.
Essentially, it was a mish-mash hodge-podge that wasn’t tied to one place in particular.
The majority “Friscans” were a disenfranchised people, poorly educated and generally destitute. The minority “Arisians” were the ruling class, and tended to be rich and well-educated. The written history took us back to colonization of the island. There were “statistics” from the World Health Organization putting the country close to the bottom of the list with regards to water, sanitation and health. Education was poor. Someone in the Canadian Forces had written quite the tome on these issues, on which the scenario was based.
Essentially, it was one hell-of-a LARP game. The biggest I’ve heard of in Canada, with about 4,000 people.
* * *
Part of the real-world training for the soldiers is how to deal with the media.
Enter the reporters.
Every night, we seven journalists (and two producers) put together a 10-minute news broadcast and a newspaper. We report on the events that take place in the scenario. Bombings. Sniper attacks. IDP camps. Canadian soldiers improving village relations, playing soccer with locals.
I was in the program in September 2010. I loved it so much that I did it again this October.
From helicopter rides to rebel sleepovers, this year’s exercise provided a lot of new things for me to learn. One of my biggest lessons was seeing first-hand how easy it is for military to sway journalism when the two forces work together.
We reporters worked with seven men that had military backgrounds in army, air force or navy. They were extremely helpful in their work with us. They helped us with ranks, titles, units and other military-related information that average civilians tend not to know much about. They manned our cameras. They edited footage with us, and drove us around the base. They helped with our print stories. They contributed to the team, and I think they were invaluable in the newsroom.
That said, I think their presence influenced our thinking. We often discussed that together, too.
One day, driving to a village, our vehicle was stopped and questioned at a new Canadian roadblock. About a dozen soldiers carrying guns and manning light-armoured vehicles, where previously there had been nothing. I radioed my boss, noting it was a bit “aggressive.”
Our driver, a member of the Royal Canadian Navy, said he didn’t think it was particularly aggressive, as the soldiers were just doing their jobs. We discussed the importance of language’s subtleties. We also talked about how civilians might see soldiers with guns at a roadblock as aggressive, whereas those accustomed to military might not.
* * *
This closeness with the Canadian military was one of the reasons I was keen on “embedding” with the “rebel forces.” I wanted to see the other side.
During the scenario, locals and Canadian military often said the “West Isle Association,” an unofficial paramilitary group, was responsible for the nation’s problems with violence.
On the last day, the government’s guard force went rogue, taking over a village. West Isle Association members were also there. I arrived the night before one of the final showdowns took place and slept there.
Guards and West Isle Association members were played by Canadian Forces from a different regiment than those being trained. They created a defence strategy, while those being trained attacked the village at sunrise.
It was a spectacular fight, for someone unaccustomed to military offensives. A lot of effort went into making it look and feel real. Although there were no bullets or live fire, guns made the normal bangs. Light dynamite exploded outside the Sea Can village to mimic the sounds of a real life attack. A smokey haze enveloped the area. Invisible lasers were aimed at vests with sensors, and loud beeps became common as the players were “injured” or “killed,” and forced to leave the game.
I left one Sea Can, where others had been “killed.” I scurried to another with a villager.
Then I was hit.
“LEFT LEG SERIOUSLY INJURED,” read my vest, telling me I had about an hour to live unless treated.
And so, I fell to the floor.
The villager fell to the floor, too. “Killed,” he said.
My co-workers popped into my Sea Can with their video cameras and started rolling.
Unsure of what to do, I giggled and asked what was next. (No, it’s not what I would do in real life, but no one said I was the world’s greatest actor.) Others laughed nervously.
One refugee – one of West Isle’s internally-displaced persons – lifted me onto his back, firefighter-style. He ran outside, as “gunfire” began. “Artillery” was still hitting the village. The man carried me to the in-town “hospital,” where the medic gave me lots of “morphine and a tourniquet” – and a few more hours to live and stay in the game.
Through those few hours, I learned a lot.
I learned hospitals are generally safe places to go during an attack, protected by the Geneva Convention.
I learned how quickly information can travel from the battlefield to your computer screen at home.
And, as many learn in their 20s, I learned that I am not invincible. I can be hurt by a bomb just like anyone else.
* * *
“If stil alive keep reporting”
This quick text message came in from my newsroom after I told them I was injured.
“Well, DUH,” was my response.
From the hospital, I kept my voice recorder and camera on. I snapped photos of helicopters shooting. I interviewed “civilians” whose homes were destroyed in the crossfire. I got an interview with one of the last guards to “survive” the “attack.” I spent a lot of time with the “local medic.” He told me how he had to warm saline solution with his food heating package in case of an emergency IV. His meal, therefore, was cold.
I had my recorder on as Canadian Forces came into the village’s hospital to treat the wounded (including myself). I snapped pictures of the searches they performed, and those who helped us. I sent the office text messages throughout, which were then used to tweet battle updates to our audience. I was taken to the Canadian section, where I was “healed.”
I got back into the game, just before the simulation ended.
* * *
Yes, this scenario was different, in oh-so-many ways.
I can’t wait to go back again.