Yesterday was a great day.
I woke up early and headed out to Kandahar Airfield solo for 9:00 a.m. where I met with the PAO (Public Affairs Officer).
After sitting in on the Force Protection briefing, I hurried back to my media tent to wait. And I waited. And waited…
Just when I was about to leave for lunch, the base was attacked by rockets, and I was confined to my tent before being given the all-clear.
After a press conference and a quick bite, I literally had to run to my tent, put on my WES vest, frag vest, helmet, ballistic eyewear and gloves, grab my camera, mic and tripod, and rush to the Tactical Operations Centre to meet my ride before they left.
The mission this day was to visit the Dahla Dam, which in real life is a $50-million Canadian project. I was travelling with a VIP, a DFAIT advisor going to inspect the dam’s gates and the projects progress.
So my dozens of pounds of equipment and I loaded into the van with two huge military bodyguards and the dignitary. We drove a couple of minutes up to the airfield, and waiting for our other ride: A Griffon helicopter.
After an hour of waiting and a quick safety brief, nine of us crammed into the chopper.
It was a tight fit, with two pilots, two guards, an officer, two gunners – one hanging out of either side of the heli – and the two “civilians.”
We flew over to the dam, and hopped out. We were met with several tanks and soldiers for further protection, and eventually by the local workers.
The scenario was being played out as though there was going to be an IED (improvised explosive device) or a suicide bomber, so everyone was on their toes, tense. I got my own soldier bodyguard who let me roam around where I wanted, trying to manage my vests, tripod and camera all at once. He was also close behind.
As conversations between the VIP and workers grew bitter, the inspection was cut short and we were told to leave immediately.
Just like in the movies, we stood with a tank to our backs, facing the Griffon that landed in the middle of the road maybe 50 metres away, with several soldiers surrounding us.
We got the all-clear, and someone shouted “Go! Go! Go!” and we ran, crouching down to avoid being decapitated by the propellor. We scrambled in, and took off.
Heading back, the pilot took what I assume was a bit of a detour.
We went through this valley, flying extremely close to the ground, zooming up and down and swerving around hills at 45 degree angles so that you could see what was directly below you. It was like something out of national geographic (minus the machine guns) as we zig-zagged across a winding river.
It was a long day, but it was completely worth it. Not many people can say they flew around Wainwright-istan in a military chopper, and that goes for the soldiers too: Some of the people I’ve met have been in the army for years and have never flown. I guess I’m just lucky!
Depending on the day here in Wainwright, you could be caught in an intense firefight, fleeing for your life, or you could end up sitting around, eating all day as you fiddle with a newspaper layout.
I definitely prefer the exciting days.
Yesterday, I woke up early and went out to a village with a colleague as my alter-ego Roya Herawi, an Afghan reporter. We wore headscarves and travelled to the scenario with a group of Afghan actors.
I was assigned to a print story/photo layout about village life in Deh-E-Baugh (which we foolishly pronounced as dee-bag the entire day).
Long story short, Task Force Steel – the American soldiers – dropped down from several Chinook helicopters just outside of the village, and approached the village looking for insurgents.
Villagers were caught in the firefight, and the Americans suffered 18 casualties because they didn’t land in the right spot.
And because they made a mistake, us journalists had to dodge Taliban grenades as we ran for shelter.
The event was very real: While the guns used could only kill you digitally, they shot blanks and made awfully loud sounds when shots were directed at the giant metal Seacans posing as houses and buildings.
With our headscarves flapping in the wind, we managed to take cover behind a wall.
As I was furiously snapping photographs, my flash went off and from far away, the camera must have looked like a gun.
Friendly fire nearly killed me. Once we stopped screaming, we realized I had only suffered a “near miss,” according to my electronic vest.
It was scary, it was thrilling. We were later detained, then we broke free, then got detained again and eventually left the village.
There are lots of rules to learn as an embedded journalist, and lots of rules you need to forget when you aren’t embedded. When you go outside the wire with the troops, you have to work within certain lines. But as an Afghan journalist, or freelancer or international journo, those rules don’t apply.
It’s confusing at times, especially since we’re constantly switching media hats, so-to-speak. But things are best learned by doing.
In other news, I’ve tried my hand at anchoring and have read the weather report twice. I’ve done the layout for two of our papers, and written a print story for one of them.
Today, I’m playing a Canadian journalist, and am currently under a media embargo, meaning I can’t communicate any information about what I’m doing until I’m given the go-ahead. In the meantime, I’m just sitting and waiting all alone in the media tent at Kandahar Airfield.
One of the commonly used phrases around here: “Hurry up and wait.”
At least the tent has heat.
Being a part of military life is addictive, especially when your first experience as an embedded journalist is a positive one.
The things I’m learning about journalism and the military are really making this experience worthwhile, and the conversations (like the quote in the title) make the long hours enjoyable.
Exercise Maple Guardian has begun here in Wainwright, and I was among the first people sent to spend two nights at Kandahar Air Field.
There are four of us in the media tent, which I’m told is quite luxurious compared to the journalists’ sleeping quarters in previous years: We have four laptops set up with Internet access and editing software, cots, air mattresses and -40 degree sleeping bags.
But it’s still absolutely freezing in here. Hopefully we’ll have heaters installed by tonight.
So far I’ve reported one story, and am currently in the middle of shooting and editing my partner’s story. Each day we take turns being either the talent or the camera.
The Canadian journalists have quite a bit of liberty when it comes to filming. Minus a few buildings, we can shoot almost anywhere, and can arrange for all sorts of interviews through the Public Affairs Officer.
While many of the soldiers are a bit camera-shy, most people are really friendly and willing to work with the media.
Sand banks, tanks and rows of tents and satellites set the scene here. As for the food, it’s just as good, if not better than the delicious meals we were served back at CFB Wainwright.
Life is good.
My days here at Wainwright are blurring one into the other. With early mornings, late nights and lots of cool experiences in between, it’s hard to keep track of which day it is.
But tomorrow will be my last day of briefings before I become an embedded reporter.
As a group, the media here has so far been taught about the structure of the military, the different types of weapons used, what Canada’s role in Afghanistan will be after we “pull-out” in July and the army’s radio codes. We’ve learned a whole new alphabet and dozens of acronyms, and have been issued our own frag vests and helmets.
Yesterday we had the chance to practice a “rant,” which is when the anchor back home throws to someone out in the field. We only had 10 minutes to read the scenario given to each of us, learn the information and put together a broadcast.
After a quick critique, we practiced a “live hit,” where the anchor would ask us questions about the same scenario.
It was a great opportunity to practice what we’ll be doing next week, and it forced us to think on our feet and work on the fly.
Today we did “walk and talks” about Wainwright-related subjects of our choice. I got to work with the professional $35,000 (not a typo) camera equipment, and practiced ad libbing.
It’s really a lot tougher than it looks, but is definitely a learnable skill.
Outside of our “learning,” I’ve spent every night at the Junior Ranks hall where they project hockey games on a screen, and have made a trip out to Walmart with the crew to buy a pillow.
Our sleeping quarters are like college dorms: Four bunk-beds and four wardrobes crammed into a fairly small space. And while the sheets have kept me warm, my pillow was a two-inch think piece of lumpy plastic.
But comfort won’t be an option this coming week: The priorities in the field are safety and survival and, of course, getting the story.
It’s day two here on base, and so far the experience has been overwhelmingly incredible. I’m learning many military acronyms and lingo, so I’ve decided to titled each post with a cool new term I’ll definitely be using in day-to-day conversations back home.
I’ll start at the beginning.
After an early start Monday, followed by terrible traffic, baggage troubles, an $84 flight transfer fee and a short trip over the mountains, I made it to the Edmonton airport safe and sound.
Two men in uniform were awaiting my arrival. They escorted me to the car and accompanied me on the two-hour drive to the CFB Wainwright military base.
I was nervous, of course: I headed into this opportunity unprepared and slightly blind, and was expecting to be thrown into a bootcamp-like situation.
Boy was I wrong.
One of the soldiers I’ve befriended likened the practical experience I’ll get next week to a giant game of lasertag. The people here are friendly, the food is actually tasty and apart from adhering to a strict time schedule and base rules, the other journalists and I have some liberty in how we spend our time.
Last night, for example, I spent my free time with the other girls and our new soldier friends who are also taking part in the program here. We watched the Canucks game, beers in hand, and talked about monarchism and media and military. (Can you spell patriotism?)
As for the learning portion here, everything is an experience, whether it’s learning the base rules, or learning how to pack the enormous rucksacks we’ll be backpacking around while embedded.
Beginning May 2, I’ll start my actual reporting. This week is dedicated to tours of the area and briefings that range from Canada’s role in Afghanistan, to how to properly get into a Chinook or Griffon (both of which are very intense-looking helicopters).
A little info on the course: We’re embedded from the 2nd to the 10th. We’re split up into groups, and accompanied by a driver who will take us from town to town. Part of the back country has been transformed into a replica of Afghanistan, which includes various cities and FOBs (forward operating bases).
The area is huge: Over 600 square kilometres.
It’s also an extensive exercise, which includes over 3000 people. Some are Afghan actors who play the roles of civilians, warlords, government officials and terrorists. Others are soldiers, who take part in the exercise so they can practice manoeuvres and train before they ship out.
Our role here is to provide a media presence in the “game,” so that soldiers can learn how to interact with journalists and practice protecting us.
And we will need protecting. There are realistic simulations that replicate mass casualty events, among other things.
As a part of the program, we also get to wear WES vests that, just like in lasertag, will let you know if you’ve been killed or injured. If you die, you drop to the ground. If you are living, but limbless, you have to scream and are transported to a helicopter and airlifted out quickly as your “life metre” counts down.
It’s intense, it’s real. And there’s more to come.