Before noon on Saturday, the war was officially won.
The weather had held out remarkably well, despite the threat of rain at any given moment. All the soldiers, some of their faces smeared with camouflage paint, gathered around after the conclusion of the final simulated battle.
The soldiers had just conquered not one, but two objectives in the early hours that morning. Two bunkers situated on two hills had been successfully cleared in less than an the slotted time.
“It went much smoother. People knew their jobs and the aggression was better.” said Corporal Josh Kishner, of the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment,comparing the attack to the one laid out the day before.
“Basically, it was pretty good.”
Although undoubtedly plagued by fatigue on day nine of the exercise, the soldiers were in good spirits, laughing and chatting as they awaited their After Action Review (AAR).
The chatter was momentarily silenced when the AAR began. Overall, it was agreed that positive developments had been made.
“I've seen progression, I've seen improvement. Both collectively and individually” began Lieutenant Colonel Brett Takeuchi in regards to the troops performance.
The soldiers were then given the opportunity to talk as well. They discussed what they had done well, and what they still needed to improve upon.
The flicker of lighters around the compound were seen as the soldiers sat back and relaxed. They had officially completed what they had come here to do, and done so skillfully.
LCol Takeuchi had the last word of the meeting.
“You guys all did a brilliant job this week, so job well done. ENDEX!”
The Canadian Forces are facing the end of an era.
The number of Canadian troops stationed in Afghanistan is at its lowest in a decade, and those who have the duty of organizing exercises such as Bison Warrior 12 are faced with a dilemma: How much experience from Afghanistan can be applied to future environments while still acknowledging that Afghanistan is in many ways an isolated case?
“Afghanistan was a certain set of circumstances, and it's unlikely that those circumstances will be repeated anywhere else,” says Lieutenant-Colonel David Fraser of the 26th Field Artillery Regiment, “In Afghanistan, we had an overwhelming technical superiority over our foes. But that's not always going to be the case.”
Exercise Bison Warrior 12 is in many ways a refresher course for basic skills that may have began to grow rusty.
This year, the exercise features two themes: “Prepare for Battle” and “Doing it Right”. These catch-phrases have been thoughtfully kneaded into almost every drill, from planning to execution. Most of the drills have the Reserve Forces practicing basic soldier skills, and the time allotted is enough to ensure that each drill has the potential to be performed in a textbook fashion.
“It's impossible to be fully prepared for every threat all the time,” says Lt-Col Fraser, “But while this exercise is based on basic soldier skills, there will be other exercises in cyber environments, ones based on information operations, and potentially others in chemical, biological and radiological environments.”
Master Corporal Devin Chadwick did a tour in Afghanistan in August 2009 as part of Operation Athena. He stresses the importance of finding a balance between the application of overseas experience and keeping an open mind toward future circumstances that may be vastly different from those found in Afghanistan.
“Coming back as a reservist, you have an obligation to teach others what you've learned while deployed,” says MCpl Chadwick, “But we're now transitioning out of the the phase of being on tour and we're changing our tactics. You can't stay in that Afghanistan mindset. You've got to move on.”
“Being in a vehicle, being in a tight knit group, off-roading is always fun,” Corporal Chad Ferens, of Fort Garry Horse, listed as his favourite parts of Bison Warrior 12.
Enjoying some food and a drink at the celebratory barbeque marking the end of Bison Warrior 12, Cpl Ferens is all smiles while he chats with the soldiers he has grown to call friends.
“It's a good wind up,” he says referring to the nights activities.
“You can relax and talk about the weeks’ events.”
With five years experience in the Army, this year is not Cpl Ferens’ first ten-day exercise, but he ranks it as one of the best.
“It was pretty good. It was smooth. Everything went just as planned for the most part and I got to know a lot. It enjoy every moment and every experience.”
Above all he says, the best part of his time in Shilo was doing a route reconnaissance of south Manitoba.
“We got to interact with the community and get out there and make ourselves known.”
There, they practiced relevant trade skills by making note of the area's terrain, keeping an eye out for any enemy forces, determining which bridges were passable and discerning a pattern of life in the villages.
“Basically, we tried to the route and find information. It was great to be able to really focus in on things relevant to our trade.”
And while BW12 proved to be a positive experience for Cpl Ferens, he is still excited to be going home tomorrow.
His list of things he most misses from home includes:
“Having a warm bed and real food. And I've got some T.V. shows to catch up on.”
“We have Battle Procedure because when we do this, everyone, when they’re doing it for real is terrified. No one goes into battle laughing saying this is going to be great. You’re almost always exhausted, you’ve been pushed physically right to the very limits of what you can do. And we have a set sequence of things that you do in every action so that you don’t forget things when you’re tired, or scared, or cold, or hungry. So that no matter how miserable you’re feeling yourself, you’re not going to miss something that will get a bunch of those men and women who follow you killed,” said Lieutenant Colonel David Fraser, of 26th Field Artillery Regiment, RCA.
The two mottos of Exercise Bison Warrior 2012 were ‘Preparing for battle’ and ‘Doing it right’, an amalgam of two of the three ideas LCol Fraser and his team presented to the commander, and the commanding officers when coming up with a theme for this exercise.
“We presented three ideas, and they chose two. And a month later, after writing and writing we came up with a basic concept for the exercise,” he said.
LCol. Fraser said the entire process of writing an exercise, from the point the commander decides there should be an exercise, through the proposal of ideas, to the writing concepts, and the organization of units, usually takes around a year.
“From January, my job was to make sure that what the infantry was doing, would fit with that the artillery was doing, would fit with what the armored recce was doing, and so forth and so forth – and making sure that the scenario and the background made sense,” he said.
The story for this Exercise was fictional, but realistic; Radicals had based to the west of Shilo were coercing the locals through acts of terrorism to believe that the local government were weak and unable to protect their own people. The local government asked for the support of Canada (military,) to get rid of these people. Canada responded, and had major battles some time ago; but there are remnants of these forces left over and need to be cleared out.
“It needs to make sense to the troops. It’s obviously not true, but it is something that is within the realm of possibility given today’s political climate,” said LCol. Fraser.
LCol. Fraser said that it takes strong leadership and commitment for the soldiers to believe in what they are doing, and to take their training seriously. He said the soldiers need to think critically during training because, yes, they know it isn’t real – but if it was real, they need to think about what could they do, and how could they do it. This is all tied in with Preparing for battle, and Doing it right.
“It’s absolutely crucial that all members of Canadian Forces prepare for this job. We make mistakes in training so that we don’t make mistakes when it actually happens,” he said.
Photo by Drew Fossum